Editor’s note: This is the first a three-part series on state funding impacts on local school districts.
When school districts ask voters to exceed the revenue cap for operating expenses this November, they will be joining dozens of others around the state.
Even with approval of referendums, districts like Fort Atkinson and Whitewater will still be educating students in a state that is spending $754 below the national average in per-pupil spending and in an environment where per-pupil spending has not increased during the past two years.
School districts around the state, including Milton, are feeling the financial pinch.
”Our revenues are staying flat. Our school district, like other school districts in the state and the country, are dealing with inflationary pressures on our expenditures,” Milton School superintendent Rich Dahman said.
Dahman said inflation has impacted wages, which take up about 75% of the district’s budget annually. The district has also felt the pressure of inflation with utility costs and supplies.
The Milton School District is in the second year of a non-recurring five-year $2.5 million operating referendum. It was a renewal of an existing one that was also $2.5 million.
While the Milton School District does not have plans at this time to go to referendum, Dahman did not rule it out in the near future.
”It is something we would address with our school board,” Dahman said.
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 to balance school budgets.
“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 are already feeling the financial pinch, leading to a record number of operational referendums in this November’s election.
Neighboring Marshall Public Schools was one of two Dane County districts that went to referendum in April. It asked voters for nearly $2 million in operational funding, with $975,000 on an annual basis indefinitely and an additional $975,000 for the next three years beginning this school year.
The Cambridge School District has already made cuts, according to Superintendent Marggie Banker. Cambridge is preparing for a nearly $415,000 deficit in its preliminary budget, Banker told the school board on June 20.
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 Wisconsin’s public schools became so strapped for money is a question that goes back many years.
In 2011, Wisconsin’s per-pupil funding was $1,166 above the national average. That number has now plummeted to $754 below the national average in 2020, the most recent year figures were available.
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. Wisconsin’s 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 Fort Atkinson, voters are being asked to continue the $3 million funding increase that was passed in 2020, now on a recurring basis, and up to $18 million over the next three years “in support of cultivating an inclusive high-performing culture of growth and community.” Its website notes that state revenue limits have not increased with inflationary pressures and “unfunded mandates.” That’s in addition to a $22 million capital referendum to address lingering maintenance needs such as roofing, plumbing, fire protection and traffic flow.
State leaders who argue for local control of public education say operating referendums are the ultimate in local control: Voters have the final say in how their public schools are operated by controlling the purse strings.
But Monona Grove’s superintendent, and those from 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.
“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,” Monona Grove Superintendent Dan Olson said.