Washington High School was one of Milwaukee's five polling places open on April 7. The city's voters overwhelmingly approved a recurring $87 million referendum to improve Milwaukee Public Schools. Across the state, Wisconsinites approved more than 90 percent of school referenda on ballots this month, totaling more than $1.7 billion.
Washington High School was one of only five Milwaukee polling places open on April 7, 2020. (Photo by Jonathon Sadowski)

April 7 was a bad day for public health but a good day for public education

More than 90 percent of the Wisconsin school districts had their funding requests approved in the April 7 election, according to results filed with the state Department of Public Instruction.

Voters approved 52 of the 57 funding requests throughout the state to the tune of more than $1.7 billion headed straight to struggling schools. The state’s public schools have been starved for funding, particularly in the last decade as state Republicans cut or diverted $4 billion from districts and pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into voucher programs.

Headlining the election were the two largest referenda in state history: a $1 billion boost doled out over 30 years for the Racine Unified School District and an $87 million recurring referendum for Milwaukee Public Schools. Both passed, with almost 80 percent of Milwaukee voters saying yes. Racine voters approved their referendum by a razor-thin five-vote margin; a recount is underway.

Schools have increasingly gone to referendum as state funding has failed to keep up with needs. At least 13 districts had to ask for basic operating costs between the Feb. 18 and April 7 elections. 

Gov. Tony Evers proposed an additional $1.4 billion in school funding for his 2020-21 budget, but Republicans reduced that figure to $500 million. Evers was able to use a partial veto to restore $70 million he signed the budget last July.

Among the priciest referenda that passed in this month’s election were:

  • Neenah Joint School District: $114.9 million to build a new high school, improve safety and security across the district, and convert the existing high school into an intermediate and middle school. Passed with 54 percent support.
  • Sauk Prairie School District: $65 million for building renovations, outdoor facilities, and improvement programs. Passed with 61 percent support.
  • Mequon-Thiensville School District: $55.7 million for district-wide facilities improvements including becoming compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and additions to the elementary and middle schools. Passed with 58 percent support.
  • Columbus School District: $30 million for maintenance and infrastructure improvement at all district buildings. Passed with 63 percent support.
  • Webster School District: $6.5 million for an addition to the district’s technical education area, renovations, and technology updates. Passed with 74 percent support.

But not every district enjoyed a resounding approval. Others like Racine came down to just a handful of votes, such as the Johnson Creek School District. The $15 million referendum there, which will fund an addition to the Johnson Creek Middle and High School, passed by just 28 votes out of more than 1,500 cast.

And for the five referenda that failed — Cambridge, Luck, East Troy Community, and Waterford Union High School districts — voting margins and project scopes varied. 

Cambridge had two referenda. One was an operational referendum for $150,000 in recurring funds, partly to operate a proposed performing arts center. That failed with 69 percent of voters in opposition. A $9.9 million referendum to pay for the actual construction of the center failed with 71 percent opposition.

Voters were slightly more willing in East Troy, but it ultimately did not matter. Fifty-seven percent voted against a referendum that would have let the district exceed its revenue limit by $1.6 million annually for through the 2024-25 school year.

And in western Racine County, a $95,000 recurring referendum to fund a full-time school resource officer failed with 50.2 percent voting against. The margin was just 22 votes.