A total of 55 districts raised more than $23 million in property taxes without having to ask voters to approve a referendum, The Appleton Post-Crescent reported. The amount raised has nearly tripled since the previous year.
"The number of Wisconsin school districts, both large and small, that are taking advantage of this opportunity continues to increase each year," said John O'Herron, Midwest regional manager for Schneider Electric, an international energy service company. "No matter the size or location of the district, one commonality among all is a shortage in the amount of funds available to solve their facility and operational needs."
The two-year-old law allows schools to borrow money for energy conservation projects over multiple years in a way that diffuses costs to taxpayers. Schools are now able to address building issues that have taken a backseat to the improvement of educational programs.
"Schools can spend more money on education, rather than sending it to the utility or paying someone to repair a piece of equipment that continues to break down," said Charlie Schneider, facilities management director at CESA 10 in Chippewa Falls, an educational agency that provides services to 29 school districts.
It's unclear how much schools throughout Wisconsin have increased borrowing to make their buildings more energy efficient. But Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team report found schools borrowed at least $93.2 million in 2012. This caused an $8.9 million property tax increase.
In April, the Menasha School Board approved a $10 million project to upgrade windows, exterior lighting and heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. Officials estimate Menasha will save $100,000 annually on utilities. Money saved will be allocated toward repaying the debt.
Appleton levied $600,000 last year to replace a chiller at Einstein Middle School and a boiler at Houdini Elementary. It plans to levy an additional $600,000 this year to replace windows at several schools.
Don Hietpas, Appleton's chief financial officer, said much-needed projects would not be possible without the law.
"It would've been very difficult to do those projects, and they probably would not get to the top of our list of priorities," he said. "It's pretty important for us to be able to use it."