School Referendum Conundrum

by Phil Anderson

Clearly, voters continue to value a public education, even if our elected officials do not.”  Scott Robert Shaw, “News Talk” WIZM (radio station in La Crosse)

Bok’s Law: If you think education is expensive—try ignorance.
Derek Bok, president of Harvard University. 

Many school districts in Wisconsin are in financial trouble. To deal with the problem many are seeking property tax increases which require local voter approval. The number of these referendum votes are increasing across the state and many are passing. Voters apparently want their local schools to be adequately funded and are willing to pay more to make it happen. 

Northwestern School District in Maple has a referendum on the April 3rd ballot. The school district is seeking $582,000 over three years to fund operating expenses. This would maintain current staff, programs, and extra curricular activities. The referendum is not for buildings,, new programs, or technology. In the last 10 years enrollment has gone down by140 students which decreased state aide by $1.3 million. State support has been cut 11% since 2008. Most of the cuts came after 2011.

To reduce expenses the district has cut $3.7 million from the budget. This has been accomplished though increased class sizes, class consolidation, cutting bus routes, cutting health care benefits for staff, eliminating early retirement options, and reducing building costs. They also received a $25,000 technology grant. 

The district is asking voters to approve an average tax increase of $68 per year for every $100,000 of valuation. Home values in Douglas County are around S150,000 or less. As is often the case in these kind of discussions, cuts (or increases) in taxes that are insignificant for individuals are important to the community as a whole. Small contributions from everyone can accomplish big things. Few residents will be hurt by kicking in additional dollars to maintain schools. 

What is disturbing about this situation is the inconsistent voting behavior of Wisconsin citizens. Voters have a propensity to vote against their own best interests, priorities, and values. They seem to choose self-defeating behavior. Wisconsinites elected politicians dedicated to cutting taxes and privatizing schools. They now have to scramble to save their local schools. It doesn’t make much sense!

Wisconsin voters have elected Governor Walker three times. They have elected Republican majorities in the legislature. These conservatives have slashed state support for local schools.  These cuts should not have been unexpected by anyone. Republicans have successfully advocated for spending caps on schools in the past. Their primary agenda for decades has been to cut taxes including property taxes. 

Now Wisconsinites seem to have had a change of heart. After voting numerous times for austerity, the voting public is now passing school spending initiatives in record numbers. In 2016 there were 150 school referendums – a 10-year high. Voters approved three quarters of them. In the past five years about two thirds of them passed. This is a much higher than a few years ago. Prior to 2011 (and the deep school cuts that year) about half of school referendums passed. People are voting to raise property taxes to keep their schools alive. 

Historically, communities used referendums for borrowing money to build buildings. It was for  long term capital investment. Prior to 2011, nearly two thirds of referendums were for raising money for building projects. After 2011, over half of the referendums on raising property taxes were to fund current school district operational costs. 

Property taxes are not the best way to fund schools. Property taxes are regressive, meaning they hit low income people harder. The ability to pay the tax is not considered as it is with income taxes. Property taxes vary widely across communities depending on the local property values and the amount of business and industrial base. Funding schools with property taxes hurts rural and low income areas. It creates unequal educational opportunity. Statewide, broad based taxes is a more equitable way to fund schools. In the past most states increased state support for schools and decreased reliance on local property taxes to reduce these problems.  

But the Walker administration has reversed this trend. Currently the state of Wisconsin contributes about 45% with local property taxes paying about 50%.  Minnesota funds about two thirds of school budgets with state aid with only 30% from property taxes. As with many public policy issues, Walker is taking the state backwards to the problems of the past.

In addition to reducing state aid the Republicans want to limit the use of local referendums. In stark contrast with their usual small government dogma, they have introduced legislation to restrict how often, and for what reasons, schools could hold referendums. School districts would not be able to raise taxes permanently and would lose some state funding for being successful with local referendums. 

This punitive attitude, and the Republican ruling philosophy, is exemplified by Rep. Dewey Stroebel who has said, “I’m especially tired of pushing for lower taxes and limited spending only to have the efforts undone in school referendums.” Heaven forbid that the will of the majority of voters would get in the way of his agenda and the will of the legislature! The arrogance, and disrespect for democracy, of this statement is amazing but common whenever  Republicans gain control of government. But I digress. 

Certainly there are many problems with our public schools. But inadequately funding them is not going to solve anything. Inflation affects school budgets the same as everyone else. Good quality programs, good teachers, and sufficient support staff will be expensive. Cutting needed revenue year after year for political reasons is guaranteed to dig schools into a financial hole. It will also hurt society and the economy in the long run. Voters need to think beyond the tax cut sound bites. Education is a less expensive than the costs of ignorance. 

Elections matter. April 3rd will be an important vote for the Maple school district. If you live in that district come out and support your local schools. Other important local issues will be on the ballot across Wisconsin.  A very import vote will be for a Wisconsin Supreme Court justice. Do your part by voting on April 3rd.