The Cambridge School District and Deerfield Community School District superintendents, along with other Dane County superintendents, signed a letter to raise awareness about a statewide school funding trend.
This November, at least two dozen school districts around Wisconsin will ask voters to approve operational referendums in order to continue delivering the same level of education their communities expect for their children.
The trend “reflects a significant shift in the state’s commitment to funding schools,” as the letter said.
Cambridge and Deerfield voters have supported their school districts with referendums in recent years.
The Deerfield Community School District has been supported by operational referendums since 2008, according to superintendent Michelle Jensen. Voters have approved operational referendum questions in 2008, 2013, 2016 and 2020, with the current one sunsetting June 30, 2025. The extra funding from taxpayers, Jensen said, allows the district to “maintain current programs and curriculum, keep our technology up-to-date, and adequately maintain our buildings and grounds.”
“With the Department of Revenue announcing yesterday that the state expects more than a $5 billion surplus, school leaders across the state are calling on legislators to address the financial needs of public schools. There is money in the budget to provide additional revenue, but instead Wisconsin has now dropped to 25th in the nation for school funding,” Jensen wrote in an email.
“As the state continues to see a budget surplus as a whole, local taxpayers are being asked by their school districts to shoulder an additional tax burden with each referendum on the ballot.”
The open letter is also signed by superintendents in Belleville, Cambridge, Deerfield, DeForest, Lodi, McFarland, Middleton, Monona Grove, Mount Horeb, Stoughton, New Glarus, Oregon, Sun Prairie, Verona, Waunakee and Wisconsin Heights. This is every Dane County public school district, with the exception of the Madison Metropolitan School District.
The letter said, in 2002, Wisconsin was ranked 11th in the nation for school funding, but in 2020 was ranked 25th, a drop the administrators say is the “largest in the national ranking of any state over this time period.”
In response to school district budget shortfalls, Governor Tony Evers announced on Tuesday, Aug. 30 that he will invest $90 million in K-12 education for staffing and mental health services.
The superintendents’ letter points out that the shift is escalating in the second year of a biennial budget that includes a zero increase in per-student funding from the state as inflation is at an all-time high.
In 2016, Cambridge voters supported a $1.6 million referendum question, which allows the district to exceed its revenue limit on a recurring basis for operational needs, but expenditures have increased due to unprecedented inflation and district efforts to adequately pay staff. This included a 4.7% raise for contracted staff.
The projected total expenditures for the 2021-22 fiscal year is $16.4 million while the predicted expenditures for the 2022-23 fiscal year is nearly $415,000 more, at $16.8 million, while the expected revenues only increased by about $100,000.
With a tight budget, the district was forced to make choices.
“We only balanced our budget by staff reductions,” Superintendent Marggie Banker said.
Area district financial pictures
School districts surrounding Marshall and Waterloo are experiencing similar budget constraints. Below is a rundown of area districts, the 2022-23 financial picture and comments on the state budget needs.
Marshall Public Schools:
Marshall voters approved nearly $2 million in operational referendums back in April, with $975,000 on an annual basis indefinitely and an additional $975,000 for the next three years beginning this school year.
The new funds will help the district retain and recruit quality staff, maintain reasonable class sizes, provide advanced and elective courses for our students, update our curriculum to offer rigorous academics, provide our students with instructional resources and technology and continue providing co-curricular programs and athletics, Superintendent Daniel Grady said.
“State funding for public Schools has limited the Marshall Public School’s ability to operate and maintain our schools without local taxpayer referendum support,” Grady wrote in an email. “Special thanks to all district residents for their continued support of Marshall Public Schools’ students and staff.”
McFarland School District:
The McFarland School District used one-time emergency federal aid given during the pandemic to balance its budget, according to business manager Jeff Mahoney. Without the aid, the district would be facing a $1.7 million budget deficit.
While there will not be a referendum on the ballot for McFarland voters this year, this will likely change, according to superintendent Aaron Tarnutzer.
“McFarland is likely a district with a referendum in 2023-24 or 24-25 to meet our ongoing costs of maintaining current programming and meeting the compensation levels that are necessary to attract and retain staff to provide the services our community expects for our students,” Tarnutzer said.
Monona Grove School District:
The Monona Grove School District passed a referendum in November 2020, which allows the district to exceed its revenue limit by $3.7 million for four years.
Superintendent Daniel Olson previously wrote in an email that an “increasingly urgent staffing crisis, worsened by a looming fiscal crisis” is what public education is facing all over the country and even more so in Wisconsin. A large portion of increasing costs, said, is due to staff benefits. Salary and benefits encompasses 78% of the district’s budget, he said.
“As the fiscal crisis pushes more and more school districts toward unsustainable overreliance on property taxes and referenda to exceed revenue limits in order to pay our expenses, we run the risk of overextending the very communities we serve and, in many cases, live,” Olson said.
Waterloo School District:
The Waterloo School District is one of many districts with a referendum on the ballot in the upcoming November election. The question will ask voters for an additional $700,000 over the next five years.
The referendum, according to district administration, will cover the growing costs of operations, including “keeping the lights on.” The district is preparing for a $470,000 budget deficit for 2022-23.
“The fact that so many schools are in similar situations speaks loudly for what kind of crisis legislators have created by choosing not to fund schools at the inflationary rate these past couple of years,” Superintendent Brian Henning wrote in an email. “Cutting budgets year after year just to make ends meet, is not sustainable; the Waterloo School (District) will not be able to maintain the same level of services on this fiscal trajectory.”
Roberta Baumann contributed to this article.
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Lauren is Wis. born and raised. She graduated from UW-Madison, earning a degree in journalism and certificate in photography. Now, she covers the Cambridge, Deerfield, Lake Mills, Marshall, McFarland, Monona Grove, and Waterloo School Districts.