School operating referendums are again on ballots locally this spring. Milton voters will weigh in on April 4 on a $9.5 million plan. Beloit, too, has an April 4 operating referendum totaling $23 million.
We recognize that simply throwing money at Wisconsin public school doesn’t guarantee better learning outcomes.
But as a record number of Wisconsin school districts put such referendums on ballots this April, we urge Milton and Beloit school district residents to vote “yes.” Most importantly, it avoids these two local districts further slipping down financially among school districts that haven’t succeeded in passing a referendum to fund basic operations.
Milton Superintendent Rich Dahman has warned that staffing and programming cuts are likely if the district’s April 4 referendum fails, potentially leading to fewer teachers and larger class sizes. Already, Milton is below the state average for per-pupil state aid, according to a study done in January. District operations are being supported, in part, by an existing $12.5 million referendum approved in November 2020, that’s being spread over tax bills for 5 years.
Beloit’s $23 million referendum would ensure that students have access to social and emotional learning and that technology, curriculum and instructional upgrades are made. It would also replenish the district’s rainy-day fund.
What happens locally when a school operating referendum fails? School districts of course have no choice but to cover costs like health insurance, wages, utilities and supplies, all of which have risen due to inflation. If a school district can’t get an operating budget passed, they’re forced to make do on everything else, which can mean cuts.
Districts that must make cuts then risk alienating families who have the option under state law to open-enroll their children to a neighboring school district. And when that happens, the home school district continues to bear most of the cost of educating children who are physically enrolled elsewhere, pinching it even further.
In 2022, 92 Wisconsin school districts had referendums on the ballot, only 76 of which went on to be approved. And more than 50 school referendums will be on ballots across the state in April.
Janesville doesn’t have a referendum on the ballot — at least not this spring. But it’s currently two years into a four-year operating referendum and will likely see another ballot measure in the next year or two.
Financially tying the hands of school districts so that a periodic referendum is the only way to stay above water shouldn’t be how Wisconsin funds its schools.
It’s pushing the state toward a two-tiered system of wealthier communities that have no trouble passing operational referendums and less wealthy communities where the added tax burden brought on by a schools referendum is a legitimate hardship for some families, and a genuine reason that some referendums fail.
School operating referendums have stemmed from the state of Wisconsin inadequately funding schools statewide.
Analysis last summer by the Wisconsin Policy Forum of per-pupil spending in Wisconsin found that the state annually spends $12,740 per pupil, 56% below the national average. And statewide per-pupil spending hasn’t increased in the past two years.
Last month, some hope emerged as Gov. Tony Evers included $2.6 billion in additional funding for K-12 public schools in his 2023-25 budget. But Evers’ budget is now in the hands of the Republican-controlled Legislature, so that proposed amount might not come to fruition.
We urge school district residents in Milton, Beloit — and around the state — to vote “yes” on operating referendums this April. And then to call their legislators and demand bipartisan action on statewide school funding reform.