FOX 11 Investigates: School referendums

A roll of "I voted" stickers. (WLUK/Andrew LaCombe)

(WLUK) - Taxpayers in Wisconsin could be paying more than a billion dollars in additional money for schools, according to a report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

Click here for a list of districts holding a referendum in November.

On November 6th, voters in districts across the state will vote on dozens of referendums, including several districts in Northeast Wisconsin.

In what's become a common occurrence, dozens of districts are asking voters to approve additional spending for everything from technology to new buildings.

"We wouldn’t ask the taxpayer if it wasn’t a real need," said West De Pere superintendent John Zegers. He says in order to deal with capacity issues, the district is asking voters to approve nearly 75-million dollars in two separate referendums. One question is to build a new school and renovate several other schools. The second question is for a new, indoor multi-purpose facility.

"We have not gone at this point for operational expenses. This is primarily for brick and mortar," Zegers said.

Meanwhile, in Bonduel, voters in the past few years have rejected two separate referendums that would have helped with operating costs.

"For this district, I know, they’ve gone through kind of a painful transition already where they’ve already made cuts here pretty recently, I think tied to some failed referendums," said Joe Dawidziak who started as superintendent in Bonduel July 1st.

In November, the Bonduel district is going to voters again for a different reason: to spend an additional 150,000 a year for six years to continue the district's current technology programs.

"I just want to make sure people understand this isn’t what was asked for the previous two times when its failed. The amount is less; the reason is completely different," Dawidziak said.

A recent report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum found that so far this year, school districts across the state have held 74 referendums asking for $752 million. 85% of them were approved for a total of $648.1 million. In November, there will be 82 referendums on the ballot asking voters to spend an additional $1.4 billion above the current state spending caps.

When asked why he thinks districts are going to referendum, State Sen. Duey Stroebel (R-Saukville) replied, "I think the biggest issue we have here is statewide we have declining enrollments."

Stroebel has been working on school funding issues for several years.

"When enrollments are declining, there’s less money. Schools are forced to make some tough decisions. Many schools today, they’re not willing to make those tough decisions," Stroebel said.

Tony Klaubauf helped pass three referendums while he was the superintendent in Denmark.

"I don’t like it really," Klaubauf said. "I always called them, instead of exceeding the revenue limit referendums, divide the community referendums because really, you end up having people pick sides 50-50."

Klaubauf is now the co-executive director of the Association for Equity in Funding. He says the current school funding model with state imposed revenue limits, doesn't work. That's why he says some districts almost have no choice but to go to referendum.

"There’s a lot of district across the state, especially in the rural areas, that need the extra dollars just to keep their kids in a somewhat competitive situation with other districts," Klaubauf said.

According to the Wisconsin Policy Forum, since 2003, more and more of those referendums are being approved.

"In the long term, that’s not sustainable," Klaubauf said. "We have to look at it statewide and say, this system is screwed up and we need to fix it so we don’t have to go continually to referendum."

"I do believe that the school funding formula needs some work and I think we need to look at it," Stroebel said.

In the meantime, Stroebel is looking for ways to limit referendums.

"What I want to see is that we do is that we spend that money efficiently and effectively," he said.

A law passed last year limits school districts to two referendum questions per year.

Stroebel has several other proposals in the works for the next year including bills that would: require school districts to take competitive bids for projects and list the total cost of debt service for projects.

"I think there just needs to be more transparency and openness in the process and we need to make sure that what we’re doing is sustainable. And we need to, most importantly, make sure that these monies that we’re spending are actually going to benefit kids.

"I know that if there was a better school funding formula that worked and was the greatest thing since sliced bread, we’d be using it," Dawidziak said.

He also says he thinks districts should be able to go to voters to ask for more money when they see fit.

"I like the idea of at least being able to have that option But I also think because so many districts are doing it and they’re being successful, at some point it should be a kind of an eye-opening thing: why is this continuing to happen? Perhaps there’s something wrong?" Dawidziak said.

That's a question whose answer depends greatly on who you ask.

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