Legislative Proposal Would Place Restrictions on School Referenda

In a draft memo being circulated for support from legislative colleagues, state Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh) and state Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg), are proposing legislation to place restrictions on school district referenda ballot dates and implement a 2 year waiting period following failed referenda.

Currently, a school referendum can coincide with a primary election, general election, or a special election can be called specifically for the referendum. Under this bill, a school district referendum would have to coincide with a regularly scheduled Spring or Fall general election.

Currently, there is no limitation on whether, and how frequently, a referendum may be placed before voters.  This bill would prevent a school board from bringing a new referendum request for two years if a referendum is voted down.

The memo from Rep. Schraa contains the following rationale:

Since these referenda are important decisions for each community and school district, it is prudent to ensure the highest number of voters possible are weighing-in at the ballot box.  Are communities and taxpayers better off when less than 20% of the voting public decides on multi-million dollar referenda?  In the same way, if a referendum fails, should a school district be allowed to resubmit the exact same, or a very similar, request to the taxpayers until it obtains the desired outcome?

This measure would curtail the practice of some school boards holding repeated referenda in order to either wear down the public or manipulate the process.  School districts would be forced to respect the will of the electorate and administer schools in accordance with guidance received from the community.

It also included an analysis from the non-partisan Legislative bill drafting service agency:

Analysis by the Legislative Reference Bureau

This bill provides that, if a school board applies or adopts a resolution to borrow money or adopts a resolution to increase revenue through any of the mechanisms identified above and the application, resolution, or referendum is rejected by a majority of the electors of the school district, the school board may not use any of the mechanisms identified in the bill to borrow money or raise revenue for two consecutive 365−day periods.

If a school district experiences a natural disaster, including a fire, the prohibitions established in the bill do not apply for the six−month period immediately following the natural disaster.

Also under this bill, unless the school board experiences a natural disaster, including a fire, a school board may schedule a referendum for the purpose of submitting to the electors of a school district a resolution to increase the school district’s revenue limit only concurrently with a spring election or with the general election. A spring election is held annually on the first Tuesday in April. The general election occurs in even−numbered years on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November. In any school year in which a school district experiences a natural disaster, the school board may call a special referendum on the resolution, provided the special referendum is held not sooner than 70 days after the resolution is filed.

Based on resolutions adopted by the WASB Delegate Assembly, the WASB strongly opposes the bill.  Specifically:

1.25 Authority to Schedule Referenda
The WASB opposes limits on scheduling referenda. (2000-4)

1.00 Local Fiscal Control
The WASB believes that the locally elected school board should have control of its local fiscal affairs and, within broad state guidelines, be allowed to manage its affairs with provision for inter-district cooperation. The WASB opposes constitutional amendments that undermine the fiscal authority of local elected officials, diminish the role of citizens in the local decision-making process, and hinder the ability of Wisconsin public school boards to address the changing needs of their students. (2005-1)(2010-1)

We encourage members to contact their state legislators and urge them to not sign on to support this proposal.  If you are not sure who your legislators are use the “Find My Legislators” feature on the Legislature’s website and enter your address.

Talking Points:

  • This bill is anti-local control.
  • This bill does not show trust in locally-elected officials.
  • With revenue limits frozen for this budget cycle for the first time, referenda are the only way many districts can access resources. This proposal will significantly impact declining enrollment districts which are often small rural school districts many of which need referenda to maintain programming.
  • Will further exacerbate the trend of creating “Haves” who can pass referenda and “Have Nots” who cannot. Opportunities for students will further be determined by their zip code.
  • The bill is extremely restrictive and inflexible for school boards – under the bill in odd number years boards will only have one opportunity to go to referendum (in the spring).  If that referendum fails, boards will have to wait two years to the next odd number year where once again there will only be one opportunity.  In a state budget year a district would have to wait until the following spring to react to funding decisions made by the state.
  • In arguing for the two year moratorium, the co-sponsorship memo being circulated states it is necessary because school boards are “holding repeated referenda in order to either wear down the public or manipulate the process”. Legislators should be aware that referenda can fail for reasons other than the community is unwilling to increase spending on their schools. There may be other issues in the plan that voters do not support and when those issues are addressed the subsequent referendum passes. For example, disagreement over the plan for construction, not the need for new/expanded facilities.  School boards are being responsive to the community.