Over 60 Wisconsin school districts pass referendums, including Milwaukee Public Schools

Voters in the Milwaukee Public Schools District passed a referendum Tuesday that would raise property taxes to fund $252 million of additional spending. The referendum passed by a narrow margin, with 51% in favor and 49% opposed.

At least 21 of the roughly 90 school referendums that were up for a vote in Wisconsin on Tuesday failed, according to data compiled by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Of those that failed, 10 involved the issuance of bonds. Nearly 30 referendums on school bonds passed.

The school districts that voted down bond measures last week were Cadott Community School District, Herman-Neosho-Rubicon School District, Hustisford School District, Marshall School District, Merrill Area School District, Mukwonago School District, Osceola School District, River Valley School District, Shawano School District and Stanley-Boyd Area School District.

The Milwaukee Public Schools’ Central Services Building. MPS District voters on Tuesday approved a referendum to fund $252 million of additional spending.

Milwaukee Public Schools

In 1993, Wisconsin passed a state school revenue limit law that required school districts to go to referendum if they wanted to grow their operating expenditures beyond limits tied to enrollment numbers. By 2023, 5% of total public school revenues in Wisconsin were local dollars approved by referendum, according to a November 2023 report by Forward Analytics, a nonpartisan research organization created by the Wisconsin Counties Association.

The additional spending approved by Milwaukee voters on Tuesday is not additional bonds but a four-year phased-in revenue limit increase of the sort required by the 1993 law, according to the district’s website. For a $200,000 home, the tax increase will be $432, the district said. 

Enrollment has been declining in the district since 2001, going from 98,663 in 2004 to 67,577 in 2024, according to a March report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

“The single biggest reason for MPS’ revenue decline has been the district’s loss of enrollment due to demographic shifts, competition from independent charter and state-funded voucher schools, and other factors,” the report found. 

Such is the exodus of students that today only about half of school-age Milwaukee residents attend Milwaukee public schools, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

Fitch Ratings assigns Milwaukee Public Schools an A-plus rating with a stable outlook. Moody’s withdrew its long-term issuer rating of the district in June 2018. S&P Global Ratings in December affirmed its A-plus long-term rating on the district.

In a 2019 rating action affirming its A-plus rating, Fitch pointed to the district’s “narrow but stable” operating margins and said its long-term liability profile remained “moderate.” With strong expenditure flexibility, sound management of MPS funds and good provision of liquidity, Fitch said the district had “adequate” gap-closing ability.

“The district has little independent legal ability to raise revenues,” Fitch noted, but “MPS has demonstrated a solid ability to control expenditures and operates within a fairly flexible labor environment.”

The rating agency said it expects expenditure growth to outstrip revenues, “necessitating ongoing expenditure management.”

“Milwaukee sent a message on April 2: We will do what it takes so that the children of our city have access to public schools with equitable opportunities,” Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Ingrid Walker-Henry said. “Now that we have passed the referendum, MPS students will have access to the opportunities they deserve — like certified art, music and physical education teachers and school libraries and librarians, and competitive salaries that retain the best teachers, paraprofessionals and critical staff for our children.”

Walker-Henry suggested that the vote was closer than it might otherwise have been because groups including the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce, City Forward Collective and the Greater Milwaukee Committee, a nonprofit composed of 200 business and community leaders, opposed the referendum.

Had the measure failed, she said, the district would have had to cut 13% from the budget of every MPS school, leading to bigger class sizes.

“Nearly a quarter of Wisconsin school districts are seeking referenda this spring because the state funding formula is broken and because the state legislature has failed to keep its funding commitment up with inflation for 16 years,” she added. “Wisconsin public school supporters must come together statewide to fix what is broken at the state level to assure every Wisconsin child has access to the great public school they deserve.”

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