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At least 8 South-Central school districts going to referendum in April

Source: Element5 Digital - UNSPLASH

At least 8 South-Central school districts going to referendum in April

Declining enrollment numbers, state aid not keeping up with inflation, and federal COVID dollars running out all put a strain on the day-to-day operations of running a school district.

February 9, 2024 12:55 PM CDT

By: Nate Wegehaupt

STOUGHTON, Wis. (WMDX) – With finances tight, at least eight area school districts will be going to referendum on April 2nd. School districts in Stoughton, Fort Atkinson, Juda, Evansville, Edgerton, Beloit, Jefferson, and McFarland will all be asking voters to raise their own taxes to cover operational costs at their schools.

There will be over 100 questions on ballots placed by schools across the state this spring, many of which are also asking voters to increase taxes to cover operational costs. More and more schools are turning to referendums in Wisconsin as a way to raise more money. Last year there were 83 school referendums across Wisconsin, and in 2022 voters weighed in on over 250 referendum questions around the state.

The schools in south-central Wisconsin going to referendum in April are all going for similar reasons – state funding has not kept up with costs, federal ESSER dollars are running out, and inflation is driving up the costs.

Federal ESSER dollars were sent to schools across the country at the beginning of the COVID pandemic to help schools adapt to virtual learning and create safe learning environments in their schools. While schools have been able to lean on that money for other reasons, that money will no longer be available for schools to use by September 30 of this year. 

Ryan Bandt is the Director of Business Services at Jefferson schools. He says that the school has been relying on ESSER funding for programs that can’t just go away once that funding runs out later this year. “We look at our increased need (for) special education and mental health services, those have not gone away but we’re using some of our ESSER funding to help support those students,” Bandt says. 

Ryan Bandt, talking with Civic Media

The Jefferson School District will be asking for $2.1 million from voters this spring to cover ongoing operational costs. Without any changes, Jefferson schools are anticipating running at a $1.67 million budget deficit in the 2024-2025 school year, and a $3.62 million deficit by the 2027-2028 school year. 

Another reason for that deficit, Bandt says, is declining enrollment at Jefferson schools. Because schools are funded on a per pupil basis, if fewer students than anticipated enroll during the school year, they will be receiving less money from the state than they planned, causing the deficit to grow.

Fort Atkinson is asking voters to raise their revenue limit $6.5 million dollars every year for the next three years, all for operational costs. This includes things like teacher salaries, routine maintenance, transportation, and everything else that goes into the day-to-day of running the school. 

Nathan Knitt is the Director of Business Services for Fort Atkinson schools. He says that the district has gone to referendum about five times over the past decade, due to rising costs outpacing the funding they get from the state. One thing that has helped his school, at least a little bit, was Governor Evers veto of last year’s biennial budget that increased school revenue limits by $325 every year for the next 400 years.

Nathan Knitt, talking with Civic Media

While the increase is appreciated, Knitt says, it’s not quite enough to help them out of the hole that’s already been created. “It helps a little bit,” Knitt says. “The $325 per student increase represents about a 3% increase in available monies for the school district of Fort Atkinson. But as folks know, inflation has been well above 3% over the past two or three years.”

School revenue limits were first introduced in 1994 as a way to reign in rising school budgets. According to the nonpartisan research group Forward Analytics, school levy limits grew 9% during the early 1990s. While the levy limits were originally set to increase automatically with the rate of inflation, lawmakers took out that provision in 2009, and instead gave the power to raise levy limits to themselves. Many schools say that, since that change took place, inflation has grown faster than those levy limits, leaving school districts in a financial bind. 

That has been the case in the Stoughton school district, which is asking for $6.1 million in operational revenue on April 2. Erica Pickett is the Director of Business Solutions at Stoughton Schools. She says that what they are asking for is not even as much as they would get if their levy limits had kept up with inflation.

“It would have been over $8 million in this school year alone,” Pickett says. “Had that increase per-student kept up with inflation, that would have amounted to significantly more resources to keep up with expenses.” 

Erica Pickett, talking with Civic Media

Edgerton schools are asking voters for $3.5 million dollars for operation costs. Tad Wehner, Edgerton School’s Director of Finance and Personnel, says that they knew for a while that they would soon need to go to a referendum. So, they’ve put together several reports comparing themselves to other area schools in a number of areas, including teacher pay, revenue limits, and class sizes. Compared to other nearby districts, they found that while their class sizes are similar, their revenue limits are lower, and the pay that teachers make at Edgerton schools is lower than neighboring schools.

That’s why, Wehner says, they need to go to a referendum. “Our per-student revenue is the lowest of all of our neighboring districts,” Wehner says. “Because it is the lowest, we felt it was important as a school district to assess how our expenses, whether it’s programs, staffing, compensation, are different from our bordering districts. We were able to establish an evidence-based outcome through that study (that says) we can see our revenue does not meet the level of our peers, what happens as a result of our expense commitments?” 

Tad Wehner, talking with Civic Media

In order to at least match what neighboring districts are able to offer both their staff and their students, Wehner says it will cost around $3.5 million, the amount they are asking for in their referendum. 

If these referendums don’t pass this spring, schools do still have options on the table. Because of how the election cycles line up this year, districts would be able to go to referendum again in the fall if they don’t pass in April. But if they don’t pass either time, and because the referendums are for operational costs, that means that districts will need to begin making tough decisions and may need to lay off staff.

Traci Davis is the Superintendent of Juda schools, who are asking for $500,000 in April. As a small district with just over 280 students, Davis says that staffing cuts would be difficult. “We are not overstaffed,” Davis says. “There’s only one teacher at each grade level, so it’s not like we can reduce a lot of staff. We (also) share staff, like our speech and language teacher we share with Monticello. We try to be very economical with that.”  

Traci Davis, talking with Civic Media

Davis says that, in addition to paying teachers and keeping the lights on, they also hope to use the referendum to give their support staff health insurance. Davis says that, while support staff get insurance in a lot of other districts, Juda schools don’t have the money to provide that benefit. Davis says that this can not only make it more difficult to hire new staff, but make staff retention more difficult as well.

Evansville schools will be going to referendum in April to ask voters for $22,300,000 over the next five years for operational expenses. Their story is similar to that of other school districts across the state – losing the federal ESSER dollars and state aid that does not keep up with inflation means the district is facing a $2,400,000 budget deficit next school year. They say that the referendum will help keep the school steady for the next five years, maintaining their current class sizes, providing high-quality resources for students, and maintaining salary and benefits to recruit and retain high-quality teachers and staff. 

Evansville officials will hold multiple public information sessions about the referendum during the coming months, with the next session happening on Tuesday, February 20th at 6PM at the Evansville High School.

While school referendums are more and more becoming the norm in Wisconsin, many school districts still feel confident that voters will be on their side and approve of raising their own taxes to help better fund schools. The Beloit School District is asking for $9,000,000 every year through the 2026-2027 school year for operational expenses. Dr. Willie Garrison, their superintendent, says that they went to referendum last year, and that question was rejected by voters. 

Dr. Willie Garrison, talking with Civic Media

Since then, he says that they’ve put in the work to help better convince voters that the money is needed. “Last year, we had a request without having some things done,” Dr. Garrison says. “So one could argue that, over the course of the past year, we did balance our budget. We did a reconfiguration of our school district last year as well to keep with the conversation of keeping our babies with us. We did have an increase in enrollment this year, from one year to the next. It wasn’t in the hundreds of students, it was in the tens of students. We are working from that mindset. There were some things that were done to address, not necessarily the doubt, but to say “what have you done?” before we go to request. Well, here’s what we’ve done.”

Beloit, Evansville, Edgerton, Juda, Fort Atkinson, Stoughton, McFarland, and Jefferson schools will all go to referendum on April 2nd.

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