Amid revenue limits and lack of state funding, the La Crosse School District is turning to voters once again to help bridge the gap in school funding.
On April 4, residents of the school district will be asked whether they support a $60 million operating referendum to pay for increased teacher salaries, building maintenance costs, student programs, mental health services and technology improvements.
Superintendent Aaron Engel said the referendum is not about doing something new, but rather will help support the teachers and programs the district already offers.
“This is about reading and writing interventions, it’s about keeping the great teachers we already have here,” Engel said. “This isn’t about doing anything fancy or new, but it’s about keeping the great things we already have in place: our academies at the high school, our strings program at the fourth and the fifth grade.”
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“The unique things we already do that set La Crosse apart, we want to keep those,” Engel continued.
If the referendum doesn’t pass, Engel said there is concern teachers may leave for higher paying positions, class sizes could go up and programs could be cut.
The referendum would increase the mill tax rate by $0.29, or $58 more for a $200,000 home.
With the increase, the mill property tax rate for the school district would be $7.98 per $1,000 of assessed value.
The tax rate for the district has decreased by almost $5 since 2013, when it stood at $12.89.
“Operational referenda in the district have strongly been supported by our community over the years,” Engel said. “What I’ve heard is people are shocked by how much underfunding there has been for public education.”
The new referendum follows the rejection of the $195 million capital referendum the district presented last fall. Seventy percent of voters said no to the referendum that asked for a new high school on the South Side.
The $60 million six-year referendum would see approximate allocations of about 20% for student services, 25% for building maintenance and 55% for personnel and programs.
Engel said about 75% of the school district’s budget goes towards personnel and salaries.
“Schools are run on people,” he said.
State funding for public education has not kept up with inflation over the past 13 years. Funding at inflation would have resulted in an additional $3,200 in support per pupil, according to the Wisconsin Association of School Business Officials.
In La Crosse, this would have meant an additional $19.2 million annually.
Since 2004, La Crosse voters have supported four consecutive operational referendums. The most recent referendum — which passed with 75% in support — will last until the end of next school year.
The new referendum would overlap with the current for the 2023-24 school year and then continue for five more years.
If passed, the district would see a levy of $6.25 million for the first year, in addition to the $4.1 million levy from the current referendum. In years two through six, there would be a levy of $10.75 million per year.
The previous four referendums each totalled about $20 million over a five-year time frame. Some residents are concerned that this ask is three times as much despite declining student enrollment.
However, Engel said this referendum is “playing catch-up” for the lack of funding over the past decade. Significant maintenance projects — such as updating bathrooms and hallways to be more accessible — have been delayed. As delays continue, the costs continue to rise.
If the referendum doesn’t pass, the district will see a $3.5 million budget deficit next year. In the following years, the deficit would increase to $8 million each year.
The district has taken measures to scale back costs in other areas to manage its funding deficit.
Over the past three years, the district has cut 40 positions to slim down on costs. The district budget has been reduced in recent years.
The upcoming closure of Lincoln Middle School will save $1.5 million annually and $5 million in deferred maintenance.
Engel is “very hopeful” the referendum will pass on April 4 given the community’s history of support for funding public education.
Engel has held multiple referendum listening sessions for those interested in learning more or asking questions. Two more sessions will be held March 23 and 28. More information can be found on the district’s website.