It’s time to properly fund Wisconsin schools
By Ben Rodgers
Last week wrapped our four-part series on the rise of referendums across Wisconsin.
More and more taxpayers across Wisconsin are being impacted each election cycle as school districts are left without any other course of action but to go to voters for approval of funds needed to properly educate the state’s youth.
Anyone who reads The Press Times knows how much we cover local education, and without the support of Microsoft and local community foundations, this project would have never gotten off the ground.
Schools are vital because our economy relies on future generations being more educated than previous generations as jobs change and evolve.
Take that out of the picture, and things start to crumble.
Schools are the lifeblood of a community.
Without successful learning, we cannot move forward as a society.
One way to ensure students get the education they need to succeed in a changing world is to make sure schools have quality staff and conditions that allow for the best learning environment possible.
That requires proper funding, which the lack of has increasingly led to referendums.
This project was warranted because I feel sometimes we get so focused on what’s happening in our local community, we neglect to look at the big picture.
Make no mistake, Wisconsin’s school funding formula is one of the biggest pictures to look at.
Trying to sum up our 10,000-word series here would be futile, so here are a few of my key takeaways.
• Since 2016, seven of every 10 of Wisconsin’s 421 school districts have gone to referendum.
Of those, nearly two-thirds have passed.
The reason for such a high number of referendums is due to limitations or restrictions in the school funding formula.
The current school funding formula is like a layer cake, but every layer is different in size and ingredients, leaving a less-than-desirable final product.
Our first part took an in-depth look at how schools are funded, and how referendums are now the most popular way to search for solutions.
• The bigger a school district, the bigger the problems and the stakes.
Last April, Racine passed a $1 billion referendum by five votes. It will help replace some district buildings which date as far back as the Civil War.
Green Bay passed two referendums in 2017 and is already in the process of planning its next ask of the community, something that takes about 18 months to execute properly.
The largest cities in Wisconsin, Milwaukee and Madison, also recently had to go to taxpayers to find a way to properly fund education to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
• Finally, this isn’t something just affecting big school districts.
Locally, Howard-Suamico has gone to referendum nine times since 2005.
Its administrative team has done a great job in getting voter approval seven of those times, but that much effort to try and get on level footing funding-wise has fundamentally changed the education system, with district leaders having to keep an eye on the future in perpetuity.
The same can be said for every district in Greater Green Bay.
Every district in Greater Green Bay passed at least one referendum since 2015.
After countless hours of research, interviews, writing and editing, we’ve concluded the solution is to reset the revenue caps, or at the very least, adjust them.
Every district has a cap that limits what they are able to tax.
Once reset, these caps should not be dependent on student enrollments, which have been declining for the past decade.
The school funding formula is nearly 30 years old.
I can point to several areas in Brown County that look vastly different now than they did 30 years ago.
Things change as time passes, and the revenue caps have been increased and tweaked over the years.
But interestingly enough, as those cap increases slowed, stopped or even went down over the past decade, the number of referendums passing has greatly increased.
Those caps increased 6% over the past decade, while inflation went up 17% cumulatively over that same period.
Lawmakers in Madison need to understand when they adjust those revenue caps, they are ultimately adjusting what their constituents pay in property taxes and placing districts in need of referendums.
Reset the revenue caps, don’t tie the number to student enrollment and let’s give all students in Wisconsin a better chance to succeed.