71 School Referendums on April 5 Ballot

Lost, perhaps, amid all the media attention paid to the Presidential preference primary and the state Supreme Court race is the large number of school district referendums on the April 5 ballot.

Altogether, 71 school district referendum questions will be decided by voters in 54 school districts. (Sixteen districts have placed multiple referendum questions on the Spring ballot.) Because referendums are local in nature, it is not surprising that they do not receive statewide media attention.

Interestingly, the majority of the April 5 questions (37) ask district voters to approve the issuance of debt for school construction or remodeling purposes, while 34 ballot questions ask voters to approve allowing the district to exceed state-imposed revenue caps. Of those 34 revenue-limit related questions, 23 ask voters to raise the cap on a non-recurring (i.e. temporary basis), while 11 ask voters to approve a recurring exception.

Earlier this year, at the February 16 Spring primary, voters in 11 districts across the state approved 10 of the 13 school referendum questions placed before them, a passage rate of 77 percent. Those votes came amid legislative debate over a pair of bills to impose curbs on when school referendums can be placed on school referenda. (See previous post.)  Those bills (Assembly Bill 481 and Senate Bill 355) did not pass, but are expected to be reintroduced in some form when the next legislative session begins in January 2017.

Back in February, the bulk of the referendum questions (9 of 13) involved exceeding the revenue limits, with voters approving 6 of 8 attempts to increase revenue limits on a non-recurring basis, and rejecting the one and only attempt to increase revenue limits on a recurring basis.

Since revenue limits were first imposed in the 1993-94 school year, the heaviest concentration of referendums to exceed revenue limit has been in conjunction with the Spring election ballot (held on the first Tuesday in April).

According to figures gathered by the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, roughly 45 percent of all revenue cap questions have coincided with the April Spring election, including more than half of all requests to exceed the caps on a non-recurring basis. Next highest for revenue limit questions, is the November General election (held in even-numbered years on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November) with about 18 percent of total attempts to override the limits, followed by the February Spring Primary (held on the 3rd Tuesday in February) with about 12 percent.

Over the same period, a smaller percentage of debt referendum questions, about 30 percent, have appeared on the April ballot. The next most common month for debt referenda is November with about 23 percent, largely coinciding with the Fall General Election, which, as noted, occurs only in even-numbered years. Historically, about 12 percent of all debt referenda have been voted on in conjunction with the Spring Primary election and about 10 percent have been held in conjunction with the Fall Primary election, which also occurs only in even-numbered years.