Wisconsin School Districts spend more than $325,000 to advertise referendums

By James Wigderson

WAUKESHA — Wisconsin school districts spent more than $350,000 in advance of Election Day to advertise and promote increased spending or borrowing referendums, according to information obtained in a Wisconsin Watchdog open records request.

The 47 school districts held a combined 67 total referendums on November 8th. Twelve of them failed. The Daily Reporter estimates voters approved a combined $1.3 billion for construction projects and operating expenses.

State Law imposes limits on school district tax levying authority as a way to hold down property taxes. School Districts can exceed the limits by asking voters to approve an increase in a referendum. School districts also may go to referendum to ask for bonding the authority to borrow for construction or maintenance.

Districts are prohibited from spending money to expressly advocate for the passage of referendums. But they can spend money for informational purposes, and many districts take advantage of that allowance.

The Whitewater Unified School District spent the most to advertise and promote its referendum, seeking $23.5 million in bonds for school renovations. The ballot issue passed with 71 percent of the vote. The district spent $29,504.69, not including architectural costs, to inform the public. Among the expenses, the district spent $10,913.10 for the services of a consultant, School Perceptions.

At the other end of the spending spectrum, the School District of Florence County spent $540.56 on notices in the local newspaper to advertise for two referendums asking voters for a total of $14.5 million in new debt for school renovations. Both referendums passed.

The Arrowhead Union High School District spent $11,586 on advertising, the most money in a losing effort. The district asked for $64.7 million in borrowing authority for renovations and construction. That referendum failed with 54.3 percent voting no. The district also asked for an additional $173,000 annually from the taxpayers for operational costs, and that referendum failed with 56 percent voting no. 

Arrowhead is expected to bring back the referendums in the spring election, hoping a different electorate will be more sympathetic.

The biggest referendums to lose were in the Chippewa Falls school district. The district spent $2,654 on advertising, while asking voters for $159.2 million combined for construction and renovations.

The Colfax School District spent $4,664.13 according the report. Seventy percent of the voters in Colfax School District voted yes on their $7.2 million referendum back in November.