Should School Referenda be Limited?

I say no.   The Wisconsin Association of School Boards has a nice summary of proposed legislation that would restrict the ability of school districts to go directly to the voters for permission to exceed state imposed revenue caps. As I detailed last summer, Wisconsin is experiencing an uptick in both the number and success of school district referenda. The likely reason is the fiscal stress facing many Wisconsin school districts. The move to restrict referenda is a backlash to the willingness of school districts to go repeatedly to their voters to as for more revenue.

First some quick background on how revenue limits work:

“Since 1993 Wisconsin schools have been subject to [revenue] limits, which are exactly what they sound like. Every year school districts are allowed to raise additional state and local revenues by a set capped dollar-amount per-pupil. For example, if a district raised $10,000 for a pupil in year 1, and the legislature increased revenue limits by $200, the district could raise up of $10,200 in year 2 (The LFB informational paper is a great resource for less-simplified information on this).”

Districts can make the decision, however, to ask the voters directly for permission to exceed revenue limits. The premise behind Wisconsin’s school funding system is that the state legislature controls annual funding increases, but local residents reserve the right to raise taxes on themselves. Is this a perfect system? Not at all. It creates inequities and uncertainty for school districts. But it is a system that, at the very least, has some consistency. School districts can expect limited revenue increases, and can plan to ask voters for permission to raise more revenue as desired.

Thus the problem with the movement to limit referenda. It is a perversion of local control that limits one of the only tools school districts have to address revenue concerns. Supporters of limiting referenda argue that school districts use scare tactics, target low-turnout elections, or repeatedly go to voters in an effort to subvert the intent of Wisconsin’s revenue limit/referendum system. To that I say yes, school districts do in fact play politics with spending referendum. Why do they do it? Well, it is the system set up by the state legislature. Requiring districts to ask voters for spending permission by definition turns spending decisions into political battles. I cannot blame school districts for participating in this democratic process.

If the state legislature does not want local control and/or local politics determining education spending decisions Wisconsin should revamp the revenue limit system. I argue one cannot distinguish between good and bad local control from afar, either local voters should be empowered via the political process (however messy) or they should not.

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