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Bill would restrict referendums

Recurring referendums could become a thing of the past for Wisconsin schools if legislation currently under consideration moves forward.

Public hearings were held June 15 on bills in the Wisconsin Assembly and Senate that would eliminate recurring referendums and convert those already in place to five-year, non-recurring referendums.

"If this legislation passes, there will be an added burden on districts to hold referendums every five years, and (it will add) all the costs associated with conducting referendums," said Clendon Gustafson, South Shore district administrator. "This will amount to added costs for district taxpayers, unfortunately."

Recurring referendums, which often cover operation expenses, give school districts the authority to raise revenue limits indefinitely by a set amount.

Four schools in Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA) 12 have passed recurring referendums since revenue limits were introduced in the 1993-94 school year.

Washburn was the first to pass a recurring referendum in 2008, followed by Mercer in 2013, South Shore in 2015 and Solon Springs in 2016.

Mercer and South Shore are the smallest schools in CESA 12, while Solon Springs is the fourth smallest.

"Your problem is never solved fully with a referendum, but it helps," said Frank Helquist, Solon Springs superintendent.

According to data from the Department of Public Instruction, all four CESA 12 schools received strong community support for their referendums. About 65 percent of voters supported the Washburn and Mercer referendums, while Solon Springs received 74 percent approval. South Shore led the group with nearly 81 percent voter approval.

South Shore's roughly $1.1 million recurring referendum was the largest passed by a CESA 12 school; but voters approved the measure without hesitation, Gustafson said, because they knew the school could not function without it.

"After five years, we will need to go to a referendum again if required by law," Gustafson said. "We would not be able to make it up through budget adjustments."

Solon Springs is in a similar situation.

After voters approved a $500,000 recurring referendum in April 2016, the Solon Springs School Board managed to pass its first balanced budget in three years. Without the referendum, the school district would have faced another budget deficit.

Solon Springs took money from its fund balance to cover operational expenses in 2015-16 and 2014-15.

"I tend not to get terribly excited by the chatter I hear from Madison," Helquist said. "If you do that you won't get any sleep at night."

If the bill becomes law, he said, the school district will decide what to do at that time.

Until then, Solon Springs will move ahead with plans to improve the school and strengthen connections to the local community.

Money from the recurring referendum has already been used to replenish the school's fund balance and to make energy efficiency improvements. Among the items the school district hopes to pursue in the coming year is the creation of a larger, handicapped-accessible fitness center that will be open to students and the public alike.

"A school is truly the hub of a small town," Helquist said. "People utilize this school so much."

Solon Springs is also pursuing new funding opportunities. A committee has formed to begin the process of applying for a Fab Lab grant, and the fitness center group is looking to use proceeds from the Mertz Rookey Golf Scramble at Hidden Greens Golf Course to fund its project.

Helquist said he'd like to see more money in the biennial budget for rural school districts like Solon Springs, but he is planning for the 2017-18 school year with no increase in mind.

"We have an extremely good school here already, and we want to keep pushing forward," Helquist said.

In the past decade, Solon Springs has lost nearly $1 million in state aid. A tightening of revenue limits after Act 10 passed in 2011 put further constraints on the school district.

Before Act 10, Solon Springs had a revenue limit $763 above the state average. For the 2015-16 school year, Solon Springs fell $134 below the state average.

The school district had not asked voters to approve a referendum of any kind in the 15 years prior to the 2016 recurring referendum.

South Shore passed a five-year, non-recurring referendum in 2011 to cover educational programming and facilities maintenance, and Mercer passed a similar referendum in 2008.