Senator Stroebel and Representative Schraa recently introduced legislation –Senate Bill 355 and Assembly Bill 481 – to address what they perceive to be the pressing problem of too darn many school district referenda.
The legislation would make two changes to referendum procedures. It would limit the scheduling of school district referenda to either the April spring election, which occurs every year, or the November general election, which only occurs in even-numbered years. It would also impose a price for failure. The bills provide that if a school district referendum does not pass, that district would be barred from scheduling any other referenda for two years.
The one-strike-and-you’re-out-for-two-years proposal has garnered the most attention so far. See, for example, this analysis by the Wisconsin Budget Project explaining that a failed referendum could actually force a school district to wait for three years before trying again.
The other prong of the proposal — restricting referenda to April and November elections – has some initial surface appeal. But in practice a danger lurks.
The proposal would mean that a school district would have only once chance to go to referendum to exceed the revenue caps established in a biennial budget. That one chance would only affect the second year. There would be no opportunity to respond by referendum to the revenue limits set for the first year of a biennial budget.
By tradition, the state’s biennial budget establishes revenue limits for school districts for two fiscal years. The most recent budget was introduced in February, 2015, and adopted in July. It set the budget for the two fiscal years running from July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016, and from July 1, 2016 through June 30, 2017.
Let’s assume that in his next budget proposal, introduced in February, 2017, Governor Walker decides to reprise his first budget and once again proposes a 5.5% cut in school revenue limits. This would be a disaster for school districts in the state. It would, for example, require more than a $15 million budget reduction for Madison schools.
If the legislature were to adopt the Governor’s proposal in the budget enacted in July, 2017, school districts that would like to go to the voters for some relief from the revenue limit for the 2017-18 school year would be out of luck if the Stroebel-Schraa legislation becomes law.
They would have missed the opportunity to go to referendum during the spring, 2017 election. Notice of such a referendum would have to have been adopted by the end of January, before Governor Walker disclosed his revenue limit plan. There would be no general election in 2017 and so no opportunity to go to referendum in November. There would not be any opportunity to go to referendum to loosen revenue limits for the 2017-18 school year, or indeed ever to respond to an unexpected revenue limit provision in a biennial budget in time to affect the first of the two years of that budget.
The next spring election would be the only chance a school district would have to go to referendum to exceed the revenue limits for the second year of the biennial budget, which in this example would begin July 1, 2018. The general election in November would be too late, since school districts would have to set their tax levy for the 2018-19 school year by November 1, before the general election.
Not all referenda are called in response to the revenue limits established in a biennial budget. A referendum to approve the issuance of bonds to pay for a new school, for example, can be planned on a different timeline. Restricting the opportunities for referenda to three days over a two year period may not be so limiting to these sorts of initiatives.
But referenda to increase the everyday operating expenditures of a school district beyond what revenue limits allow are difficult to plan without knowing what the applicable revenue limits will be.
The establishment of revenue limit levels did not used to be such a high-stakes issue for school districts. From the adoption of revenue limits in 1993 through the last Governor Doyle budget, the limits increased regularly every year by an amount between $190 (in 1994) and $275 (in 2009). For Madison, a $250 per pupil increase equates to more than a $6 million increase in the district’s annual budget.
Governor Walker jettisoned the practice of reasonably predictable increases, starting with the 5.5% reduction in revenue limits in his first budget. Revenue limits are less today than they were before he took office. Not surprisingly, there has been a big increase in the number of school districts going to referendum for increased spending authority, and an increase in the percentage of referenda that are successful.
The recently-adopted budget provides for a zero increase in revenue limits for both this and next year. That is simply unworkable for any school district with goals more ambitious than gracefully managing its decline. And who knows what’s coming next. All bets are off as to what Governor Walker will propose for revenue limit adjustments in his next and perhaps final biennial budget.
If the Strobel-Schraa proposal becomes law, the governor will know that school districts won’t be able to respond through referendum to whatever he proposes for revenue limits for the first year of that budget. That’s a chilling thought for those of us who support public education and like the idea of local control of schools.