(Image by Shutterstock)
(Image by Shutterstock)

As taxpayers keep getting asked to help out, one local referendum fails by a single vote.

Senate Democrats blocked a vote Wednesday on a Republican plan that would spend budget surplus money on an election year tax cut rather than on education, as proposed by the governor.

The vote will now occur at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, forcing Gov. Tony Evers to show his hand after some miscommunication between the two branches.

Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, began the debate on the Senate floor by saying he had met with Gov. Tony Evers Tuesday.

“It is my understanding that he has not ruled out signing the bill,” Fitzgerald said.

But Britt Cudaback, a spokesperson for Evers, quickly responded on Twitter by saying, “The governor told @SenFitzgerald he’ll be as open to Republicans’ tax bill as Republicans have been about passing his education plan.”

Republicans have ignored the governor’s plan to invest $250 million in schools while writing their own proposal for handling an unexpected budget surplus.  

The back and forth came one day after voters in three school districts across the state rejected every one of the ballot questions up for consideration in Tuesday’s election. The referenda carried a total cost of $6.4 million.

Fifty-six more referenda will appear on ballots on April 7. The ask of school districts to taxpayers is collectively more than $1 billion. 

Senate Democrats, in arguing against the GOP tax cut bill, said voters are not getting any tax breaks if they are repeatedly being asked to raise their property taxes to support their local schools. 

“This would get voters out of that cycle,” said Sen. Dave Hansen, D-Green Bay. “Let’s help taxpayers and let’s help our schools.”

Two school districts, Edgar in Marathon County and Lakeland Union High School in Minocqua, were requesting funds to simply keep up with increasing operational costs. 

Lakeland Union High School requested $3.45 million for 2020 to keep up with operational costs. District residents rejected it 3,073 to 2,404, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The school has operated with a budget deficit for six of the last seven years, said District Administrator Rob Way. 

“We have increased needs with our students coming in — special education needs, students that have mental health issues, students that have experienced trauma,” Way said. “Our needs coming up are many.”

Deficit spending “is just not a trend you can continue,” he added. 

The Edgar School District asked for $650,000 over three years — $150,000 in 2020 and $250,000 in 2021-22. The referendum was voted down 530 to 453, according to DPI. 

A presentation on the referendum that the district published last year said declining enrollment and fluctuating expenses have “made it very difficult to balance our budget while maintaining the same offerings.”

The district laid off staff, stopped reimbursing teachers for continuing education, reduced maintenance projects and lowered classroom budgets within the past seven years to make up for funding shortfalls, according to the presentation.

And a $2.3 million referendum for Grant County’s River Ridge School District failed by a single vote, 331 to 330, according to DPI. The money would have been taken out as debt to build an outdoor educational facility.

Headlining the 56 referenda on the April 7 ballot is a more than $1 billion referendum for the Racine Unified School District that would give the district up to $42.5 million annually through the 2051 school year.

The Neenah School District is bringing forth the next-largest referendum, coming in at $114.9 million to build a new high school and perform renovations and implement security improvements across the district.

 “We are supposed to be here to make sure those services are provided, and we are not,” said La Tonya Johnson, D-Milwaukee. “So then districts are forced to go to referendum. This makes absolutely no sense.”

Since the 1993-94 school year, more than 3,100 school referenda have appeared on voters’ ballots, according to analysis by the nonpartisan Wisconsin Policy Forum. And the amount voters are approving has been increasing. 

In that same time frame,, districts have succeeded with a combined total of $16.9 billion worth of referenda, the Forum found. Of that, $5.9 billion, or 35 percent, has been approved since just 2014.

“It’s not really if schools need to go to” referendum, Way said. 

As reported by UpNorthNews earlier this month, the Wisconsin Budget Project found that public schools have lost out on billions of dollars in funding due to cuts implemented under former Gov. Scott Walker. Had funding remained equal to 2011 levels, schools would have had nearly $4 billion more, the Budget Project found.

Evers tried to make up for the massive shortfall in his 2020-21 budget, proposing an additional $1.4 billion in school funding. Republicans rejected that number, bringing it down to just $500 million. Evers subsequently used a line-item veto to restore $70 million to the funding boost.

“There are vibrant conversations in Madison, and I think that’s a good thing,” Way said. “But at the end of the day, we have to get our funding somehow, and right now the mechanism is through the local tax base.”