Wisconsin state legislators are looking to limit school districts in how often they could ask voters to pay for building project or operational expenses under 2015 Senate Bill 355 and Assembly Bill 481. Under the proposed law, school districts would be prohibited from sending a referendum to local voters for a period of two years after a failed referendum, and would be limited to posting referendums to regularly scheduled elections. This prohibition would apply even if the proposed referendum had no connection to the failed referendum.
In the early 1990’s, Governor Tommy Thompson implemented revenue caps limiting how much school districts could collect in state aid and property taxes. Revenue caps increased each year generally keeping with inflation, until 2009, where the cap slipped under inflation. In July, 2011, Governor Walker and the Republican legislature cut revenue caps resulting in a $834 million cut in state K-12 education spending (Hetzner and Richards). Since then, schools havestruggled to maintain programs, and rural schools, facing revenue caps and declining enrollments, have been impacted the most.
In response to limited school funding, many schools have turned to local voters. In 2014 alone, there were 206 referenda, a ten-year high (Beck). Since 2011, district residents have voted in referenda 380 times, approving two-thirds of them (Wisconsin Budget Project).
Bill supporters cite high Wisconsin property taxes and argue referenda proposers should not use off-cycle election dates.
Bill opponents respond this bill is unnecessary as local voters have control to approve or decline referenda, and further limits on school fundraising could be disastrous.
Implications for Wisconsin Public Schools:
An analysis by the Wisconsin Budget Project asserts forcing “districts to wait two years after a failed referendum would have reduced or delayed new resources for school children in 31 districts by nearly $200 million since 2011” (Johnson). According to Pat Greco, superintendent in Menominee Falls, “We would be totally out of cash reserves by November…We couldn’t make payroll” (Johnson).
Research and Connection for English Language Arts/ NCTE:
With less money to hire teachers, class size inevitably goes up. Nationally, “Today public schools employ 250,000 fewer people than before the recession of 2008–09, while enrollment has increased by 800,000, and class sizes in many schools are at record highs” (NCTE Position: Why Class Size Matters. 2014). In 2004-05, Wisconsin ranked 18th among the states in the number of students per teacher. By 2011-12, Wisconsin’s ranking had dropped to 30th (Wisconsin Budget Project, “Fewer Teachers”), and that was before Governor Walker’s drastic cuts. Without adequate funding and without means to go over state-mandated revenues, class sizes will increase.
In addition, vital funds for professional development, supported by NCTE Position: Principles of Professional Development 2006, will be curtailed. School districts are increasingly curtailing professional development as a cost-saving measure.
Beck, Molly. “GOP proposals limit Wisconsin school district’s ability to raise revenue.” Capital Times. 27 October 2015
“Proposed Limits Make it More Difficult for Voters to Approve New Resources for Schools. Wisconsin Budget Project.” 27 October 2015. <http://www.wisconsinbudgetproject.org/proposed-limits-would-make-it-more-difficult-for-voters-to-approve-new-resources-for-schools>