School referenda fascinate me. This, alone, could (should?) warrant a blog post, but I’ll spare you. For now.
We’re often asked something like, “A lot of referenda have passed lately in Wisconsin. How was the last round? Still pretty high or dropping off?”
Typically, my response is something to the tune of, “Thanks for asking! Do you have an extra nine hours to talk? I’d love to go through it.” (Again, I spare people. And again, for now.)
This blog post seeks to address that question.
First, let’s look at all referenda in Wisconsin. The blue bars in the chart above show the number of referenda proposed each school year since 1993-1994—the year school district revenue caps were implemented by the state legislature. The yellow line, corresponding to the right axis, shows the percentage of the proposed referenda approved each school year. The dashed red line demonstrates the trend over time.
Approximately 71 percent of referenda put in front of voters in the 2020-2021 school year were approved. This is about 16 percent lower than the peak passage rate last year, when roughly 87 percent of referenda were approved.
Except for one in February 2021, all referenda held this school year were either in November 2020 or April 2021. The November 2020 results were similar to the past few years: about 84 percent of referenda were approved. April 2021 was a relatively substantial dip: approximately 61 percent of referenda were approved.
Before we move on, let’s talk definitions. There are three types of public school district referenda in Wisconsin:
Non-recurring referenda: This type of referenda proposes a raise to the revenue limit for a ballot-specified number of years. At expiration, the revenue caps and, therefore, tax rates, revert to the prior level of taxation or a district’s new mill rate within the state-imposed revenue limit.
Recurring referenda: This type of referenda proposes a permanent raise to the district’s tax base unless removed by the board of education.
Debt issuance referenda: Wisconsin school districts can issue up to $1 million in debt before triggering the need to pass a referendum. Debt issued under this $1 million trigger must be paid off using funds within the district’s revenue limit. Any other debt must be approved via a referendum.
This second chart presents the same information as the first but specifically for non-recurring referenda. Roughly three-quarters (74.5 percent) of non-recurring referenda passed in the 2020-2021 school year. This is lower than the past few school years (96 percent in 2019-2020; and 87 percent in both 2018-2019 and 2017-2018) but very similar to 2017-2017.
Third, this next chart above highlights the approval of recurring referenda. About 78 percent of recurring referenda passed in 2020-2021, above last year’s 60 percent and below 2018-2019’s record-setting 95 percent. As the blue bars above demonstrate, there are quite a bit fewer recurring referenda put in front of voters now than there were in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, but they were passed at higher rates.
Fourth, debt issuance. Around 65 percent of debt issuance referenda passed this school year, which is about 24 percent lower than last year’s record-setting year. Similar to recurring referenda, there are fewer proposed more recently compared to the ‘90s and early ‘00s.
Finally, let’s talk cash. The blue bars in the chart above show the total amount of money Wisconsin public school districts requested each year, irrespective of referendum type. The yellow bars indicate how much money was approved by voters. (By the way, these numbers are inflation-adjusted to reflect 2021 dollars.)
This chart is important because it answers a natural question. Maybe referenda in Wisconsin have passed pretty commonly the past few years because there’s not much money on the ballot?
There are many ways to answer this question, but the simplest is to say that’s not the case. Importantly (and interestingly!), Wisconsin has seen not only high referendum approval rates, but these high approval rates correspond to some of the highest dollar requests. (For what it’s worth, this isn’t because a few districts are asking for the lion’s share of the money either.)
More to the point, schools in Wisconsin requested about $1.4 billion in money via referenda this school year. About $1.04 billion was approved. In 2018-2019, school districts requested and voters approved the most money of any year in the revenue cap era: $2.7 billion and $2.2 billion, respectively.
In 2019-2020, voters approved nearly all of the money schools requested via referendum—98 percent! Schools requested $1.76 billion via referendum, and voters approved $1.73 billion.
I could go on and on. I won’t.
But I could.
The entirety of my doctoral dissertation focused on political behavior in rural Wisconsin public school district referenda. I set out to answer three questions:
1. Why do people vote yes?
2. Why do people vote no?
3. Why do people change their minds?
To do this, I quantified every factor I could get my hands on that I thought might affect whether a referendum would pass or fail. I then created several predictive models using various statistical methods. I used these to predict whether a referendum would pass or fail in a community. I then conducted follow-up qualitative work in districts where I was wrong—districts where I really thought a referendum would pass but it failed, and districts where I really thought a referendum would fail but it passed. To be short, I learned a lot.
Do you have free time to talk endlessly about public school district referenda? If so, don’t hesitate to reach out to me!
The School Perceptions Blog and Resource Center features the voices of our team members. This post was written by a very nerdy (passionate?) Rob DeMeuse, Research Director & Project Manager.