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This year could see the most referendums and the highest amount of total referendum funding approved since 2001, according to a report earlier this month by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Madison school referendums and recessions

In addition to major referendums in the Middleton and Monona Grove school districts, 18 other districts in south-central Wisconsin will ask voters for a total of about $319 million to pay for improvements. Those measures include a new library and greenhouse at Dodgeville High School; adding classroom and gym space, and improving parking and securing the lobby at Mineral Point Elementary School; and maintaining class sizes and mental health services in the Whitewater School District.

All told, 61 school districts in the state are using a total of 82 questions to request $1.4 billion in debt and revenue limit increases. Of those, 44 are asking to issue debt totaling $1.25 billion, according to WPF’s count.

Madison school referendums and economy

Twenty-four districts are also asking to temporarily exceed state revenue limits to generate up to $157 million, while an additional 14 are asking for permanent exceptions to state revenue limits to raise about $26.1 million per year.

The requests come after the state Legislature boosted state funding for schools in the current two-year budget by $649 million, although that was after two budgets of only modest increases and one in 2011-13 that cut spending by some $800 million — an amount that was largely made up for by cutting district contributions to teacher pensions and other benefits.

Since 1999, there’s been some correlation between a growing economy and the willingness of school districts to propose — and their voters to approve — referendums. Districts have also tended to ask for bigger referendums during good economic times.

WPF, a nonpartisan policy research organization, points to a number of factors that influence referendums, including aging facilities and declining enrollments, especially in rural areas, that result in less state funding.

Also, “school funding decisions made by state officials do play a role in how common referenda are or aren’t,” said WPF research director Jason Stein. “But the overall health of the economy and the individual district’s situation clearly play important roles as well.”

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.