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Wisconsin Spring 2023 Referendums: Insights & Trends You Need to Know

There are four things you need to know about April’s referendum results.

  • The percentage of referendums approved by voters on Tuesday was substantially lower than in recent cycles.

  • This school year, however, was pretty normal compared to recent years.

  • The drop in approvals was driven mainly by non-recurring operational referendums.

  • Wisconsin school districts set a record for the most money requested from voters ($3.21 billion).

How does this school year compare? In the 2022-23 school year, voters approved 111 of the 164 school referendums. Whether that rate (67.7%) is “normal” depends on your timeframe. It’s the ninth highest of the last 30 years.


The twelve school years with the highest approval rates are, actually, the last 12 years (2011-12 to 2022-23). Focusing on just those 12, this school year falls kind of in the lower-middle.


The takeaway: This school year’s approval percentage was a little lower relative to the last few years but still much higher than average across the last three decades.

What about just this April? Was this particular election any different?

Yes, especially relative to the last decade.


Voters approved 57% of referendums this spring. That’s the lowest since spring 2013.


Here’s how the previous ten cycles shook out:

What caused the drop in approval this time ‘round?

Non-recurring referendums. This type of operational referendum asks local property taxpayers to increase their school district’s revenue cap for a specified number of years to fund student services, staff salaries, regular maintenance, and other day-to-day operational costs.


And this spring, it dropped.


A lot.


On average, two-thirds of non-recurring referendums pass (66.0%). This school year, 59.7% did. This spring, 50% (22 of 44) were approved by voters.


This rate is substantially lower than the pattern over the last ten or so years. Wisconsin last saw this rate of non-recurring approval in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

What about recurring and capital referendums?

Pretty typical and above-average year.


Recurring operational referendums are the same as non-recurring, except that the revenue cap increase is perpetual. Capital (debt issuance) referendums are used when a district seeks to build or remodel a school or otherwise make substantial updates.


But wait, wait, wait…


How can something be both normal and above average?


It depends on the timeframe again. This school year saw 75% of capital referendums approved by voters. It’s the fourth highest ever over the 30 years but typical when zooming into the last 10 years (see chart below).


On Tuesday, voters approved 19 of 29 capital referendums. Pretty usual stuff here.

Regarding recurring referendums, same story: upper end of the last 30 years but typical for the last ten. Seventeen of 24 (70.8%) recurring referendums were approved by voters this school year. This spring, the number was 6 of 10 (60%).

School districts on the ballot set a record.

The 2022-23 school year had the most money ever requested in the revenue cap era (inflation adjusted, of course – we want apples to apples).


In total, $3.21 billion was on ballots. To some extent, this is a function of the number of referendums attempted. This, too, was high – the fifth highest in the last 30 years.


The amount of money voters approved was close to the record but fell about $150 million short. In 2018-19, voters approved $2.50 billion. This year, it was $2.35 billion.

This is merely the start. We'll have many more insights into these patterns and trends over the next few weeks. Stay tuned.


In the meantime, if you have questions, please contact research@schoolperceptions.com


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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