Wisconsin school districts blame lack of state funding for near record number school referendums
LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) – A near-record number of Wisconsin schools can’t afford the upgrades they need. So, they’re asking taxpayers for help. La Crosse’s proposal costs the most. A flaw in the state’s school finance structure rewards some schools and punishes others.
The need for change comes with debate. Everyone wants a slice of the pie, but the cupboard remains bare.
“We can’t count on the state to provide the funding that we need,” said Aaron Engel, superintendent for the School District of La Crosse.
Wisconsin taxpayers will vote on 81 school referendums on Nov. 8 for a 21-year high total of 167. Aging facilities and declining enrollment force school superintendents like Aaron Engel to look at other options. Education costs money.
“That’s not free,” said Troy Gunderson, former superintendent for the West Salem School District.
Gunderson spent 25 years as a leader for the West Salem School District.
“The other issue is growth,” Gunderson said.
Gunderson understands the pickle La Crosse is in right now.
“You’re going to have to do something,” Gunderson said. “Or you’re going to go bankrupt.”
Wisconsin’s constitution establishes each student in the state gets a chance at a quality education. Candidates in this year’s election agree that’s not happening.
“Some of these rich [school districts] down in the southeastern part of the state don’t need the extra per student,” said Republican Rep. Loren Oldenburg, incumbent candidate for Wisconsin’s 96th Assembly District.
“Education should have nothing to do with the tax base in their area,” said Jayne Swiggum, Democratic Candidate for Wisconsin’s 96th Assembly District.
The state has a funding formula that is pretty difficult to understand.
“It’s not an easy story to tell,” said Brian Walters, Howards Grove School District business manager. Walters said the state changes the rules every two years.
“We have no idea what we’re gonna get for revenue,” Walters said. “What if it’s zero?”
Wisconsin caps schools on aid based on property values. The formula Gunderson said, in theory, works pretty well. Walters pointed out a substantial flaw.
“It’s not exactly accurate because there are very poor economic areas that have high property values for a lower number of students,” Walters said.
Take De Soto and Cashton for example. The schools have roughly the same student population but they are given different amounts of money because of the river view properties that drive up De Soto’s property values.
“Madison views De Soto as rich and Cashton as poor,” Gunderson said. Holmen and La Crosse, same story. “How different their financial world is,” Gunderson said.
Wisconsin sees Holmen as poor. “They don’t match their student population,” Gunderson said. “So, they get more help from Madison, or [homeowners] would be taxed out of their home; they wouldn’t be able to pay for it all.”
Wisconsin sees La Crosse as rich with fewer students. “Madison views De Soto and La Crosse almost the same,” Gunderson said.
When you look at the school facilities — one is an obvious cut above the other. “[Holmen is] running way fewer buildings,” Gunderson said. “They’re all new.”
Schools ask voters for permission when they want to exceed their revenue limit. Holmen School District executive director of finance and operations, Julie Holman, is asking taxpayers for $650,000 for technology improvements and nearly $75 million for elementary school upgrades.
“It is an investment,” Holman said.
Holman said crafting school budgets tests everything she knows about problem-solving.
“Often it’s just enough to keep things operating,” Holman said.
According to Wisconsin Policy Forum — in 2002 Wisconsin ranked 11th in the nation in school spending – in 2020 the state dropped to 25th.
“We’ve chosen lower taxes versus that higher service,” Gunderson said.
La Crosse is asking for more than any other district statewide – $195 million to combine Central and Logan High Schools. In Superintendent Engel’s words, his district’s motive for this proposal focuses on efficiency.
“Then we’ll be able to balance our budget and invest in those programs, invest in our teachers,” Engel said.
Many people disagree with this option.
“We can come up with a plan that better serves our community and doesn’t disenfranchise half of our neighborhoods,” said Courtney Lokken, Pursue a Better Plan organizer on Oct. 24.
Should this referendum pass, La Crosse taxpayers will pay an estimated $8 more for every $100,000 in property value.
“It will feel about the same financially,” Engel said.
Gunderson said people look down on debt. “Debt’s not always a bad thing,” Gunderson said.
However, the economy has revealed one thing — costs are rising.
“It’s gonna cost me a lot less to do it now than it is to wait,” Gunderson said.
The lack of school funding now rests on whether voters want to foot the bill.
Western Wisconsin School Referendums on the Nov. 8 ballot
Bangor — Eau Claire –– Hillsboro — Holmen — La Crosse — Onalaska — Wauzeka-Steuben — Viroqua — North Crawford
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