Local taxes are going up across the state of Wisconsin by nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars.
The state’s Department of Public Instruction says that 75 percent of school districts in Wisconsin that asked voters for more money got what they wanted.
In all, voters approved $765 million during Tuesday’s election.
Eric Bott with Americans for Prosperity in Wisconsin say that shows that the system for school referenda is broken.
“Local school districts often sell referenda to voters by explaining that the state will pick up a substantial portion of the tab for construction costs. They say ‘Hey, this is a no-brainer. We can get an $80 million school and you’ll only have to pay $20 million or $30 million,'” Bott said Thursday. “The problem is that when everybody starts passing huge referenda, we all end up shouldering that burden. And that means there will be fewer state dollars to put into classrooms.”
The $765 million is just the latest round of local tax increases for schools.
DPI said local voters approved $560 million in school tax questions last spring, and voters OK’d nearly $700 million in new taxes in the spring of 2017.
That’s more than $2 billion in new taxes for schools in just three years.
“This structure doesn’t exactly encourage the most responsible decision-making and it hides the true fiscal impacts of referenda from the public,” Bott said.
Voters in Sun Prairie, just outside of Madison, approved the largest school tax question in the state on Tuesday. The $164 million referendum was sold to voters as the best way to pay for a new high school, even though some parents said the school district doesn’t need a new school right now.
“That $164 million is a lot of money to ask, but I think it’s important to look at what the actual tax impact is,” Sun Prairie school board president Dr. Steve Schroeder told a Madison TV station.
Sun Prairie voters also approved a $5 million tax increase to cover the cost of teacher pay raises.
DPI highlighted a $125 million tax question for the DeForest School District to build a new school and renovate the old high school, as well as the $91.5 million referendum from Fond du Lac Schools for a “district-wide school improvement project.”
Bott said in addition to the increases costing local taxpayers a lot of money, these school referenda also have a tinge of crony capitalism.
“There are other major problems with school referenda in Wisconsin. For one thing, school construction projects aren’t competitively bid,” Bott said. “We know from academic literature and empirical evidence that competitive bidding substantially reduces the cost of construction.”
Voters in some communities defeated local school referenda. DPI says voters scuttled $420 million in requests.
That includes a $12 million tax question in the Palmyra-Eagle School District. School leaders told voters before election day that without the new money they would be forced to close the district.
Benjamin Yount reports on Illinois and Wisconsin statewide issues for Watchdog.org.