Schools’ Success in Passing Referenda May Rekindle Efforts to Restrict Such Votes

The statewide success rate of school referenda on Tuesday’s (Feb. 16) primary election ballot could rekindle debate in the 2017-18 Legislature about restricting when school boards can place referendum questions before voters. Ten of the 13 questions (77 percent) placed before voters in Tuesday’s primary election were approved.

Voters in the school districts of Bangor, Independence, Jefferson, Marshall, New Glarus, Northland Pines, Oostburg and Rhinelander approved referenda. Voters in the Slinger School District approved two, both relating to school construction and remodeling. Voters in Hayward (two questions) and Prescott turned back attempts to exceed the revenue limits.

Six of Tuesday’s successful referenda will allow districts to exceed the revenue limit (on a non-recurring basis) to help cover district maintenance and operational expenses, while four, including the two in Slinger, and one each in New Glarus and Oostburg, related to issuance of debt to build new facilities or make improvements to current school buildings.

In the current 2015-16 legislative session, a pair of identical companion bills (Assembly Bill 481 and Senate Bill 355) were introduced by state Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Cedarburg) and state Rep. Michael Schraa (R-Oshkosh), to bar school boards from scheduling referenda in conjunction with primary elections, such as yesterday’s spring primary.

Under those bills, unless a school board experiences a natural disaster or fire, boards could only schedule a referendum vote at a spring or general election. A spring election is held annually on the first Tuesday in April while the fall general election occurs in even−numbered years on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November.

Not only would these bills, as introduced, have placed restrictions on school district referenda ballot dates, they would have required a 2-year waiting period following a failed referendum during which a district would be prevented from going to referendum or utilizing certain types of borrowing.

The WASB opposed both bills and testified against the bills when public hearings were held.

Although the bill’s authors eventually agreed to amend the bills to reduce the waiting period from two years to one year, they did not offer any other changes. At present, neither bill appears to have sufficient support to pass. Indeed, two Assembly Republican lawmakers from rural areas withdrew their names as co-authors.

Although both bills appear to be dead for the 2015-16 session, the Assembly author of the bill has said he plans to reintroduce the proposal next session, so expect legislation to limit the scheduling of school referendums to return next January, when the 2017-18 legislative session convenes.