In the two spring elections held this year (February and April), 44 Wisconsin school districts placed 56 referenda on the ballot, some to borrow and some to exceed state-imposed revenue limits. Voters passed them at rates significantly above historical norms.
Twenty-one of the referenda asked to borrow money to construct new or to remodel existing buildings. Fifteen (71%) passed. That percentage was well above the 1994-2013 average of 54% and matched the 2012 percentage as the highest since 1994.
In addition to borrowing, districts can ask voters to exceed state-imposed revenue limits temporarily (nonrecurring) or permanently (recurring). Of the 29 nonrecurring referenda, 20 (69%) passed. Again, this percentage was well above the 1994-2013 average (56%). The 69% approval rate was the highest percentage since 1996 when the only referendum on the ballot passed. It also continues a recent trend of high approval rates: Voters approved more than 65% of nonrecurring referenda in 2011, 2012, and 2013.
The remaining six referenda were permanent (recurring) ones; four (67%) passed. During 1994-2013, only 34% of recurring referenda were approved.
Many factors contribute to the success or failure of a school referendum. One overriding factor in recent years may be the limited growth in revenue limits during 2010-14. In 2009, districts were allowed to increase their per student limits $275, or about the rate of inflation. The average per student limit at the time was about $9,500. State budget problems led to a smaller allowable increase ($200) in both 2010 and 2011.
Continued state difficulties resulted in a 5.5% cut in 2012, though the impact of the reduction was limited in many districts due to changes in collective bargaining laws included in the controversial Act 10 that allowed districts to reduce benefit costs. Allowable increases over the past two years have been small, $50 and $75, respectively.
The combination of allowable revenues growing less than inflation and many district costs rising more (e.g., transportation and utilities) have increased pressure on school budgets, with some districts reducing programs to balance their budgets. One interpretation of the higher approval rates is voter recognition of this phenomenon and a willingness to approve tax increases to ease the pressure.
A recent issue of The Wisconsin Taxpayer (http://wistax.org/publication/to-exceed-not-to-exceed) studied the history of Wisconsin school referenda.