Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining school funding in Wisconsin.
When the Sun Prairie Area School District joins seven other districts in Dane County—and even more districts statewide—in asking voters to exceed the revenue cap for operating expenses, it won’t be alone.
Even with approval of its referenda, districts like Sun Prairie will still be educating students in a state spending $754 below the national average in per-pupil spending in an environment where per-pupil spending has not increased during the past two years.
Public school advocates predicted problems with funding more than a year ago, when the Wisconsin Public Education Network (WPEN) held its annual summit inside the Performing Arts Center at Sun Prairie East High School.
The Aug. 6, 2021 event—which featured special guests Gov. Tony Evers and Superintendent of Public Instruction Jill Underly—included a rebuke of the Wisconsin Legislature for using one-time COVID-19 funds.
“We graduated a class in 2020 that knew nothing but cuts,” Underly said, calling the past 10 years “a decade of austerity” for educational funding. “That’s an entire generation of kids who started in first grade, through high school graduation, that were not afforded opportunities . . . we need to get it done for our kids.”
But the governor said current funding is “nowhere near” where Wisconsin needs to be to fund public education.
“Kids deserve better and I’ll continue to fight to do what’s best for them because I know what’s best for them is best for our state,” Evers said.
Area school districts, including Waunakee, are already feeling the financial pinch.
Neighboring Marshall Public Schools—one of two districts that went to referendum in April—asked voters for 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.
Like Sun Prairie, the Waterloo School District is asking voters to approve a Nov. 8 operating referendum. District voters will consider approving 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.
How did Wisconsin’s public schools become so strapped for money?
Consider that in 2011, Wisconsin’s per-pupil funding was $1,166 above the national average, but has now plummeted (in 2020, the most recent year figures were available) to $754 below the national average. The Wisconsin Policy Forum states that while Wisconsin’s per-pupil education spending has increased 48.6% since 2002, the national average for education spending has increased by 75.2% in the same amount of time. The increase was the third smallest in the nation—behind Idaho and Indiana.
But one ‘Vote No’ Nov. 8 referendum advocate says that it’s not the state figures, but instead, the local figures that the district should be using as a more appropriate comparison.
“This is a local issue,” remarked Sun Prairie resident Brent Eisberner, who also represents District 2 on the Sun Prairie City Council. “Why aren’t they using the local, like what it costs for the students in Sun Prairie, because this last year, or the most recent data in Sun Prairie, we spent just over $20,000 per student, which is significantly higher than the Wisconsin average.”
Area superintendents disagree.
“The funding continues to decrease in the state of Wisconsin, and that puts a strain on school districts, especially when cost of living has increased and all of our costs continue to increase, as well,” remarked Lake Mills Superintendent Tanya Olson.
The result in Lake Mills—and other districts—is the perfect educational expense storm: Greater than anticipated costs for service delivery, along with higher prices for items and personnel needed to deliver the service.
The reason for the storm, according to Dan Rossmiller of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, is the state’s educational funding system. In a guest column, Rossmiller explains that the revenue limit law implemented as a temporary experiment in the 1993-95 state budget is now permanent despite efforts to fix it in 2009.
Rossmiller said revenue limits restrict the annual increase in a district’s revenue derived from state funding and property taxes—which form the bulk of the funding sources for schools.
In the SPASD, voters are being asked for $9 million during the next three years for operating expenses. The district’s busing contract has increased by 5%, and utilities costs have increased 10% because of the increase in fuel prices, which in turn impacted the price of delivering goods and services nationwide—prices that are passed along to consumers who are feeling the hit twice because they also are paying higher prices as taxpayers.
State leaders who argue for local control of public education say operating referenda are the ultimate in local control: voters have the final say in how their public schools are operated by controlling the purse strings.
But Sun Prairie and other districts say this isn’t realistic, especially because the state has not kept up with cost increases and has actually provided increases that add up to less than the rate of inflation.
If Sun Prairie’s Nov. 8 operating referendum fails, SPASD’s administrative team will develop a process for the Sun Prairie School Board to consider budget reductions for the 2023-24 school year and beyond. Those potential cuts range from salaries to purchased services to benefits for employees.
Lauren Henning, Jeromey Hodsdon, Roberta Baumann and Jonathan Stefonek contributed to this story.
Next week, the series examines why Wisconsin is setting a record for the number of operational referenda in 2022.