School referendums find voter favor Nov. 6
Visiting teams playing the Amherst High Falcons have not been able to shower after their games or matches—win or lose—for the last year.
Showers in the visitors’ locker room were shut down because “water was leaking and running in the basement,” Tomorrow River School District officials say in a statement on the district’s website.
But visiting athletes will once again be able to shower because Tomorrow River District voters on Nov. 6 approved borrowing $8.5 million for remodeling projects. Of that, $653,900 will be spent on locker room renovation.
On Nov. 6, while the nation re-elected a president and Wisconsin chose a new U.S. senator, 38 referendums went before voters in school districts across Wisconsin.
According to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI), 27 passed and 11 failed.
The list of approved projects totaled almost $232 million, although $60.6 million of that was in the Middleton-Cross Plains District. Edgerton School District voters approved two referendums totaling $9.28 million to remodel buildings, upgrade technology and finance debt. The smallest amount authorized was $400,000 in repairs to Gilmanton schools.
The 71 percent approval rate for Nov. 6 school referendums surprised many experts.
Miles Turner, who retires July 1 as executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators, said he was “shocked” at the 71 percent passage rate.
In the 24 years that Turner has been watching school referendums, he said at least half of them usually lose.
Asked what message he took from Nov. 6 results, Turner said, “The people of Wisconsin value public education. They want to save their public schools.”
During the last 20 years, under both Republican and Democratic governors, “public schools have been severely strained” by spending limits and the now-broken promise that state government would pay two-thirds of K-12 costs statewide, Turner added.
The success in Nov. 6 votes also comes after two historical changes proposed by Republican Gov. Scott Walker and passed by Republican legislators last year:
--Aid to public schools was cut by hundreds of millions of dollars in the current two-year state budget to fix a deficit of more than $3 billion.
--Public employees—including teachers and school administrators—were required to pay more for pensions and health care. That saved Wisconsin school districts about $366 million this year in fringe benefit costs, according to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
Todd Berry, president of the Taxpayers Alliance, also was surprised at the 71 percent success rate of school referendums. The approval rate has averaged about 50 percent, estimated Berry, whose group studied school referendums in detail about two years ago.
Berry said Wisconsin school districts ask voters to approve three types of borrowing: To exceed state-imposed spending limits for one year only, to permanently exceed those spending limits, or to borrow money to build or remodel.
Berry said whether they pass depends on factors that can include: the number of previous referendums that lost, whether the scope and cost have been reduced after earlier referendums that were defeated, and whether construction or lifting state-imposed spending caps once or permanently are involved.
Requests to permanently exempt a district from spending limits are hardest to pass, he added.
Overall, “things tend to pass eventually,” Berry said, but only after what he called the back-and-forth “sanding process” between district officials and voters. That process occurs after voters reject initial referendums and before they finally agree to a scaled-back borrowing request, Berry said.
Especially in rural areas, Berry said, “The overarching factor is, ‘We want to keep our school open.’”
Sometimes local voters can be jolted into passing a referendum, which may explain why the Middleton-Cross Plains District west of Madison got permission to make $60.6 million in improvements.
Part of that $60.6 million will remodel and equip Kromrey Middle School, which had to be closed because of mold.
Closing Kromrey Middle School because of mold “got a lot of attention,” Berry said. “It was independent confirmation that there was a problem.”
On the same day, voters can approve a building program but kill a separate plan that would authorize even more debt.
Voters carefully review each request before agreeing to raise their property taxes for schools, Berry added. “People get it. It’s for basic ‘keep the doors open’ stuff.”
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.