Historic $1 Billion School Referendum Passes By 5 Votes

Historic $1 Billion School Referendum Passes By 5 Votes


By Jonathon Sadowski

April 14, 2020

Racine, Milwaukee voters give their schools huge boosts.

It came down to five votes. That’s the margin by which Racine County voters approved a $1 billion referendum for their schools, the largest single price tag on a school referendum in state history.

The results, published Monday, six days after the controversial and dangerous April 7 election, mean the struggling Racine Unified School District will be able to upgrade its facilities and programs. Some school buildings there date back to the mid-1800s. Just over 34,000 people voted on the referendum.

In all, 57 districts across the state had referendum questions on ballots. Districts have had to go to referendum far more frequently in the past decade, as state Republicans cut or diverted $4 billion from public school funding and vouchers have further drained schools of needed money. A number of referenda on ballots last week were simply asking voters for money to continue existing operations.

Results are still being filed with the state Department of Public Instruction, but early indications are that the election was good for public schools. Of the 20 results reported to DPI just before noon Tuesday, all had passed.

The Racine Unified School District will get infusions of up to $42.5 million annually through the 2050-51 school year. The funding will replace expiring debt, meaning it will not result in a tax-rate hike for the roughly 140,000 residents in the district.

Historic $1 Billion School Referendum Passes By 5 Votes
Julian Thomas Elementary School, left, and Janes Elementary School in Racine. Both schools were built in the 1850s. The Racine Unified School District plans to close Janes and construct a new school. (Photos via RUSD)

Voters in the Milwaukee Public Schools district approved a referendum that will allow the district to indefinitely exceed its revenue limit by $87 million. Through 2050-51, the sunset date of Racine’s referendum, MPS taxpayers will have given their district about twice as much as those in Racine.

Milwaukee residents overwhelmingly approved their referendum, with 78 percent of about 86,000 voters in favor. It will result in a tax-rate hike. 

The Milwaukee and Racine referenda had unusual national attention. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, endorsed the measures. President Donald Trump falsely claimed that the Racine school district was asking for a tax increase.

In Neenah, voters gave the go-ahead on another massive referendum, $115 million for the construction of a new high school, district-wide security improvements, and converting the existing high school into an intermediate and middle school. That vote passed with about 54 percent in approval.

One referendum that failed, of which DPI has not yet published the results, was one in Waterford, an exurban community in western Racine County. The district asked for $95,000 annually to put a first school resource officer in the high school. Voters struck it down by just 20 votes, a 3,159-3,179 margin. It will remain the only school district in the county without such an officer.


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