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Several school districts in the La Crosse area are turning to voters this November, hoping they approve referendums that will allow the districts to exceed state revenue limits.

On election day, recent history will be on their side.

Since Gov. Scott Walker took office in January 2011, voters here and across the state have passed school referendums at a noticeably higher rate than they did under his predecessor, Jim Doyle.

School superintendents say these referendums have been crucial in preserving programs and maintaining buildings, and in keeping their districts out of the red. The rising success rate, they add, seems to signal that voters have made a conscious decision to pick up the slack, to support education in ways the governor and lawmakers have not.

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Fran Finco

Finco

“We definitely see” more community support, said Fran Finco, superintendent of the School District of Onalaska. “I’ve been to meetings in Madison, and some schools tell us that, if they don’t get a referendum through, they’re going to need to close their school.”

That kind of either/or, he said, has a way of persuading people.

Under Doyle, going to referendum was like flipping a coin — the statewide success rate was 49 percent.

Under Walker, that number has soared.

Since 2011, 70 percent of school referendums statewide have passed, including a staggering 78 percent in CESA 4, which includes La Crosse and much of western Wisconsin.

That bodes well for the Onalaska, West Salem and Bangor school districts, which are asking voters for permission to exceed state-imposed revenue limits. A yes vote would give each district an extra $1 million to $3 million annually, for the next several years.

The School District of Holmen is also going to referendum in a few weeks, eyeing an addition to its high school as well as recurring funding to operate the new space.

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Troy Gunderson mug

Gunderson

“I think more districts are at the end of their rope,” said Troy Gunderson, the superintendent in West Salem. “More people have been pushed to the brink.”

School districts are feeling the full effect of a 1993 law limiting how much money they can draw from taxpayers without a referendum. In his two terms, Walker has elected to freeze or lower those revenue limits on several occasions, further handcuffing districts.

“That ends up crippling you, because our revenue this year is the same as it was six years ago, and costs have gone up,” Gunderson said. “And it’s not necessarily a Walker vs. Doyle thing. It’s just that the circumstances have changed, and more people are in a situation where (referendums) are the only resort.”

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Jay Clark

Clark

Added Jay Clark, the associate district administrator in Holmen: “The state revenue limits have not increased sufficiently for districts to deliver services that our communities expect. This compels school boards to ask the community: ‘Do you want to give us money to support this, or do you want to lower your expectations?’ ”

There are external, global factors at play.

Referendums are more likely to pass when communities have a little spending money, and the national economy has greatly improved during the past several years.

Considering sharply rising construction costs, communities have added incentive to build or repair a school in 2018, rather than in 2028. That leads to more yes votes.

“There’s a lot of pressure to fix these buildings,” Gunderson said. “You need to capture those low interest rates.”

More than anything else, school officials point to the voters themselves.

Gunderson, who has been involved in roughly a dozen referendums in his 25 years in West Salem, said voters seem to be embracing this new normal.

Barring major school funding reform, administrators say that districts will keep coming back to their constituents every four or five years, asking for a little more.

“We now have a component of our school funding that comes from referendums, and I think people are starting to understand that,” Gunderson said. “That might not have been the case 10 years ago, but now, everybody is doing it.”

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Kyle Farris can be reached at (608) 791-8234 or kfarris@lacrossetribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at @Kyle_A_Farris.

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Kyle Farris reports on education for the La Crosse Tribune. Reach him at (608) 791-8234 or kfarris@lacrossetribune.com.

(4) comments

Veridic

Every TIF steals money from schools by locking their amount of property tax for 28 years. Instead of growing with inflation, the schools amount of property tax gets fixed in the year that the TIF is created.

This short coming is the fault of our local politicians by starting many TIF districts. It will not go away for another 30 years. But at least our local real estate tycoons are happy.

GrandpaS

"Barring major school funding reform, administrators say that districts will keep coming back to their constituents every four or five years, asking for a little more." So how good ARE those $4 a month state tax cuts? I remember joking about how the recipients of that $4 a month discount could now take that money and buy a Mercedes or pay for at least one kid's college tuition with it. Raise your hand, property owner, if you accomplished either of those things. I suppose if you and your date saved up 3 months worth of that $4, you could go to Starbuck's and have coffee. I don't think it would cover a donut. You have to wake up and learn to look at the bigger picture, GOP. You're not even seeing the goof after goof after goof that you're being handed.

GrandpaS

This story is another narration of the RSMS phenomenon. (Republican Short Memory Syndrome .) When Walker cut property taxes and school funding, the cut for school funding was $800 million dollars. I don't exactly remember the property owner's savings on state income tax, but I remember one article that said the owner of an X thousand dollar home would save something like $44 a year, a little less than $4 per month. (That's not the exact figure probably, but it was very close to that.) So then the education cuts made it necessary for local school districts to have referendums and then pass local property tax increases to pay for them. Community after Wisconsin community got stuck doing that, many or them several times. (Keep in mind that the spending limits that the state put on local school districts were created and passed by GOP regulations from the party who lets companies put poison in our drinking water because they want to fight regulations. Um....) Anyway, if your local property taxes jumped by, say $10 per month, then you started spending twice as much on local taxes as you were saving on state taxes. Heck of a bargain. And every time Walker campaigns, he brags about the wonderful tax savings we got and then completely ignores the increases in local taxes that we got. How can people not remember what he really did AND not see the hipocracy of what he is now saying? "I'm a hero because I cut taxes!!!" Except he didn't. He just caused a small state tax cut to result in much higher LOCAL property taxes. And the victims of RSMS have absolutely no idea that this is what happened. None.

PhysicsIsFun

Walker - The Education Governor. NOT!

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