When voters in the Madison Metropolitan School District go to the polls Nov. 3 — or open their absentee ballot — they’ll see a pair of densely worded questions that will play a major role in the future of Madison schools.
The two “yes or no” referenda cover significant areas of the district’s budget: operations and capital projects.
The ballot continues a statewide trend of school districts increasingly asking voters to approve increased spending for new buildings, renovations or ongoing operations. Together, the $350 million ask is among the largest in state history.
Here is information about what’s on the ballot and recent referendum trends:
What are the two questions on the ballot?
The capital referendum question is: Shall the Madison Metropolitan School District, Dane County, Wisconsin be authorized to issue pursuant to Chapter 67 of the Wisconsin Statutes, general obligation bonds in an amount not to exceed $317,000,000 for the public purpose of paying the cost of a school building and facility improvement project consisting of: renovations and additions at all four high schools, including safety and security improvements, plumbing/heating and cooling, science labs and classrooms, athletic, theatre, and environmental sustainability improvements; land acquisition for and construction of a new elementary school located near Rimrock Road to relocate an existing elementary school; remodeling the district owned Hoyt School to relocate Capital High; and acquisition of furnishings fixtures and equipment?
The operating referendum question is: Shall the Madison Metropolitan School District, Dane County, Wisconsin be authorized to exceed the revenue limit specified in Section 121.91, Wisconsin Statutes, by $6,000,000 for 2020-2021 school year; by an additional $8,000,000 (for a total $14,000,000) for 2021-2022 school year; by an additional $9,000,000 (for a total of $23,000,000) for the 2022-23 school year; and by an additional $10,000,000 (for a total of $33,000,000) for the 2023-2024 school year and thereafter, for recurring purposes consisting of operational and maintenance expenses?
But what do those actually mean?
The capital referendum would allow the district to borrow $317 million and use that money for a variety of projects. Those include renovating the four comprehensive high schools with $70 million for each, building a new elementary school in the Rimrock Road neighborhood, consolidating Capital High School into a single location and completing some sustainability-related projects.
The operating referendum would allow the district to surpass the state-imposed revenue limits at an increasing amount each of the next four years ($6 million, $8 million, $9 million and $10 million) and by $33 million in perpetuity thereafter to fund yearly costs for programming and staff. Exactly how the funds would be spent would be part of the district’s annual budget process with the School Board giving final approval.
The board approved a pared-down preliminary budget earlier this summer, without the referendum funding built in. This month, they’ll pass two final budgets — one in case the vote is “yes,” and one if it is “no.”
District leaders have said without approval, some key equity programs and even staff positions could be eliminated, though any decisions on potential cuts would be made by the board.
Even if it is approved, the board could also choose not to tax to the full amount in any given year.
What does this mean for taxes?
If approved, property owners would see tax rate increases.
Property owners would see an increase of $59 per $100,000 of value in year one, according to the district’s presentation. By 2023-24, the cumulative increase in the operating referendum as well as an increasing mill rate impact of the capital referendum would bring that to $151 per $100,000 of property value above the current taxes that go to the school district.
District officials anticipate that tax base growth and relatively stagnant enrollment will help diffuse the costs.
What is MMSD’s recent referendum history?
MMSD last went to referendum in 2016, when voters approved a four-year, $26 million operating referendum similar to this year’s operating question. That allowed the district to surpass revenue limits by $5 million in each of its first two years and $8 million in the back half, with the $26 million added in perpetuity.
That question, also in a presidential election year with high turnout, passed with 108,343 votes in favor and 37,612 votes against.
The year before, the district asked to issue $41 million in debt for various capital projects, which voters also approved. In that spring election, with lower turnout, 45,765 voted in favor with 9,924 against.
The last time an MMSD referendum failed was 2005, when two of the three questions on a May special election ballot failed and the other passed. Voters defeated a $7.4 million operating costs referendum and a $14.5 million elementary school construction question, while voting in favor of a five-year, $26.2 million maintenance and technology referendum question.
Since 1990, MMSD has had 11 referenda pass and three fail.
How have school referenda been doing around Wisconsin?
Recent years have seen a significant uptick in the number and approval rate of school district referendum questions.
According to an April Wisconsin Policy Forum report, nearly two-thirds of school districts across the state have had referenda approved to surpass state-imposed revenue limits since 2016. In spring 2020, voters approved 52 of the 60 questions on ballots, “marking the latest in a largely consistent trend of higher levels of voter approval for school referenda.”
That included the largest ask in state history, as voters in the Racine Unified School District narrowly approved a $1 billion non-recurring referendum that will allow the district to modernize buildings, purchase land and other capital improvement projects. That money is split by year through the 2050-51 school year.
The question received 16,715 votes in favor and 16,710 votes against.
The only other referendum larger than the MMSD ask this year came from Milwaukee Public Schools in 1993, when a request to issue $366 million of debt failed.
Why has there been an uptick in school referenda?
According to that same Wisconsin Policy Forum report, the two main revenue sources for districts have increased more slowly than inflation over the last decade.
While inflation rose 17% from 2009-10 to 2018-19, the statewide average revenue limit per pupil for districts increased about 6%, the report finds. That increase includes referenda, general state aid and property tax revenues.
The state also offered additional funding outside of revenue limits, which "closed more than half of the gap between the statewide revenue limit and inflation, but not all of it," according to the report.
"Whatever the future holds, recent trends on school referenda and what they convey about voter attitudes are one factor for policymakers to consider as they wrestle with huge budgetary challenges in the months ahead," the report states. "They suggest many Wisconsin voters want to ensure their local schools have adequate financial resources, even if it means dipping into their own pockets to do so at a time of crisis."
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