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November referendums – What happened?

Let me just say… This. Blog. Is. My. JAM.


This is my Christmas morning.


My early birthday gift.


My referendum research NERD. OUT.


My TIME TO SHINE.


Unfortunately, many of you are, apparently, quite busy. So, even though I would really, really like you to read this whole post, I’ll give you the TL;DR version here:

  • Most referendums pass (but keep in mind self-selection … if you know a referendum is for sure going to fail, you won’t take it to ballot).

  • The 2022-23 school year is on pace to break the record for the most referendum dollars approved in the last 30 years.

  • The percentage of all referendums approved is just a hair below last year’s rate and the fifth highest ever in the revenue cap era.

  • The percentage of referendums approved for school building projects is higher than in recent years and already has the fourth-highest dollars approved ever.

  • Once April hits, we could get close to the record for the most non-recurring referendums on a ballot in a school year. The reason? Likely a function of remaining ESSER dollars.

  • Recurring referendums passed at the second-highest rate ever. However, there are fewer than they used to be, they were geographically clustered, and the analysis also suffers from self-selection.

As you know, the midterm elections were just a few weeks ago. Included on many voters’ ballots was a referendum for their local school district. There are two types of referendums school districts in Wisconsin use to increase local funding.


1) A capital referendum asks voters to approve a district issuing debt (i.e., taking out a loan) to fund major building projects, such as additions, renovations, and/or building a new school. These are typically financed over many years, often 20.


2) An operational referendum asks voters to approve additional funding above the annual revenue limit. This additional funding is used to maintain programs and services, maintain class sizes, and fund staff. Operational referendums come in two flavors. They can either be time-limited (i.e., extra funds for one, three, five, or any other number of years) or ongoing/forever. If they’re time-limited, they are non-recurring. If they’re ongoing, they’re recurring.


Let’s begin.


All Referendums


So far, the 2022-23 school year (which is how we look at our data), has the fifth-highest percentage of approvals over the last 30 years at 79%. The only years that were higher were 2019-20 (86.7%), 2018-19 (86.3%), 2017-18 (82.1%), and 2021-22 (80.2%). In addition, in any given year over the last 30 years, the average percentage of referendums approved by voters is 60.1%. Thus, this school year is running nearly 20% above average.


Even more interesting is the amount of money approved this school year. (Note that these figures are inflation-adjusted!)

This year, 2022-23, already has the fourth-highest amount of money approved via referendum. Why is that so interesting to me? Because we still have an opportunity for districts to go to ballot in April! And based on the number of community surveys we’ve completed this fall, there will be many more referendums on the ballot for voters come spring. I’m not in the business of making predictions (that’s a joke; it’s funny because I actually am), but this school year has the chance to break the 2018-19 record of $2.6 billion.


Capital Referendums


Voters approved over 80% of capital (debt issuance) referendums in November (82.1%). This is 22% above the 30-year average. What’s more, the approval rate is ticking back up over recent years (which, by the way, still had sky-high approval rates).


Like all referendums, we could very well be on pace to get close to the all-time record of capital project dollars approved. The 2022-23 year is already in fourth place with $1.4 billion approved by voters.

Operational Referendums


Let’s consider non-recurring operational referendums first (the ones that sunset after a set number of years). The percentage passed was again quite a bit above average over the last 30 years (75% passed relative to the 66.5% average).


When I read this data, I thought, “Huh, not that many on the ballot this year.” That first thought was wrong. In recent years, it hasn’t been uncommon to see 40 to 50 of these on election day. This year, we saw 28.


However, obviously point here, this year isn’t close to being done! We still have April! As the ESSER dollar cliff looms closer, this number will only go up. We could experience a record number of non-recurring referendums on the ballot this school year.

Lastly, recurring (ongoing) operational referendums. There are almost always fewer of these. In the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, districts tried three to four dozen of these per school year – and they essentially went nowhere. During those years, approval rates were nearly always well below 50%.


In more recent years (say, the last 10 to 15), there are fewer, but a higher percentage pass. In fact, this school year, 11 of 14 recurring referendums passed (78.6%), which is the second highest rate ever (behind 2018-19 at 95.2%).


It’s hard to know what to make of these. I think, at times, district leaders look at these numbers and think, “Boy, a lot of them pass. Should we try?” I’m not so sure about that because, again, there’s substantial self-selection. Unless you’re absolutely certain your community will approve a “forever tax,” why even try?


Also interestingly, four of the approvals (of the 11 total) were in growing, young, Dane County districts (Mount Horeb, Oregon, Sun Prairie, and Verona).

 

Okay. You made it. But we're not done. In the next few weeks, keep an eye out for how School Perceptions did in terms of our predictions (spoiler: we're right almost all the time).

 

The School Perceptions Blog and Resource Center features the voices of our team members. This post was written by Rob DeMeuse, Research Director.

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