Photo by Austin Pacheco on Unsplash.
Yesterday, the Madison School Board approved two referendum questions that will now be on the ballot for the November election: one to help the district improve school facilities, one to maintain operating expenses and invest in the school system.
The Capital Referendum would allow the school district to issue over $317 million in bonds, which would be used for renovations, new buildings, and consolidating Capital High School into one building.
The operating referendum would allow the school district to surpass state-imposed revenue limits for the next four years. Kelly Ruppel, chief financial officer for the school district, said at yesterday’s school board meeting that the revenue gained from the second referendum could be used to help implement a variety of programs.
“We have exciting visions around full-day 4-K designed to close opportunity gaps,” said Ruppel. “Daily world language and, across our middle schools, programming in the arts, music, science, technology, attracting and retaining high-quality teachers, and focusing on investments in our strategic equity projects such as our early college STEM academy, investing in our reading curriculum and other culturally relevant curriculum and restorative justice practices.”
Ruppel also criticized state aid as being unreliable and inconsistent.
Expected state aid to the school district declined by over $5.5 million between last year and this year, according to numbers from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. That aid and other sources of revenue could further decline by the end of the year because of the pandemic. Jason Stein, the research director for the Wisconsin Policy Forum, says that while those sources have dried up, schools can still rely on money gained through local taxes.
“For this year alone, Madison schools are basically seeing an expected decline in all their various forms of revenue except property taxes, their state aid, federal aid, other revenues,” said Stein. “So when you look at that, it means that they have to raise property taxes simply to maintain their current level of spending before they do any additional spending and also before any potential cuts that they might have in state aid because of the COVID-19 crisis.”
The operating referendum, if approved by voters this November, will raise property taxes to patch up the school district’s budget shortfalls and pay for more programs. In total, the proposal would raise the district’s budget by $6,000,000 in the upcoming school year, and more in subsequent years.
The average property owner would see an increase of about $80 over the next four years, according to the school district website. Jane Belmore, the interim president for the Madison School District, said that the board studied public opinion to see if it had shifted against increased taxes in light of financial struggles brought on by the pandemic.
She said that it had not.
“We know we’re living in a different world than we were one year ago,” said Belmore. “We are very mindful of the financial struggles that so many families in our community are going through right now. And we recognize the additional financial burden that we are asking the community to take on at this time. We knew it would be important to learn if the broad community support we had heard throughout the fall had shifted in light of this crisis. What we learned is that our community’s appetite for referenda hasn’t lessened in the wake of the health crisis we are going through. Rather we are learning that our public schools and the safety and academic achievement of our kids is more important now than ever.”
The District held 50 input sessions and received more than 4400 responses from community members regarding the referenda.
A community engagement report from January found overall strong support for the referenda in the school district. Nonwhite residents expressed concerns about how the money would be used, and said they wanted the school district to continue engaging with them and ensure the spending process was transparent.
The two referenda will be on the November ballot.