Digging Deeper: Funding Our Future - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Digging Deeper: Funding Our Future

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(WQOW) -- On election day, voters in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls will be voting on much more than the next president.

Those two school districts will be asking voters to weigh in on referendums -- and they are not alone. A number of school districts across the state have referendums on the November ballot.

"They're projecting 2016 to have the highest number of school district referendums, and the highest number of dollars requested through school district referendums in the history of the state of Wisconsin," says Chippewa Falls School District Superintendent Heidi Taylor-Eliopoulos.

When a school district requests a referendum, as in the case of the Chippewa Falls School District, it's often used for capitol improvements -- like upgrades and construction projects.

"And really that school construction process for schools was really designed to be a referendum process," Chad Trowbridge, the Chippewa Falls School District Finance Director.

Chippewa Falls has two referendum questions on the November ballot. One calls for building a new elementary school and buying property. The other, for building a new high school. But that's not the only reason school districts are calling for money this fall.

"We're asking the voters to do is to let the Eau Claire Area School District exceed their revenue cap by $5.8-million per year for the next 15 years and take on some debt to deal with deferred maintenance, technology infrastructure, and some of our safety and security needs that we have," says Eau Claire School District Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck.

In the first three and a half months of 2016, there were 85 referendum questions on Wisconsin ballots. Those proposed measures totaled nearly $1-billion. 45 of those were for districts to exceed their revenue limit.

"You can't raise the revenue cap without the approval of the voters," says Hardebeck.

"In 2016 of the over 400 school districts in the state, Eau Claire's proposed referendum is the second highest in the state only behind Chippewa County.  Chippewa County has not had a referendum in 15 years. But Eau Claire had one in 2007 that failed, had one in 2011 that passed, had one in 2014 that passed and failed. And so, it seems like the Eau Claire school district has a very difficult time living within its means," says Brian Westrate of Eau Claire.

Since 1993, Wisconsin schools have faced a ceiling on how much they can increase revenue through state aid and local property taxes.

"What happens is when our state aid goes down, that means our property taxes go up. Because it's a formula," says Eau Claire Area School District Director of Business Services Abby Johnson. "So if you think about a pie, you have 100%. Here's how much revenue you can get which is based upon your student count and how much you've been spending over the course of time."

Because of that, all school districts in Wisconsin are not funded equally.

"The funding you have as a school district is based on a revenue cap that was set in 1993. Eau Claire was a very conservative spending school district at that time. And so as a result, the revenue cap was set at a lower rate at probably what we need today," adds Hardebeck.

But not everyone agrees that more money will solve the district's problems. 

"They've already approved a $3.5-million increase in the salary structure. But they didn't pay for it. They've instituted this pay scale before asking for the referendum money that will be necessary to pay for it," says Westrate. "It just seems to me that the Eau Claire school district is being poorly managed. And anytime I see something that appears to be poorly managed I find myself strongly questioning --- do you need another $5.5-million dollars per year for the next 15 years because you just can't quite figure out how to manage what you've got now?"

The superintendent says a series of cuts led the school district to where it is today in terms of maintenance needs.

"In 2009-2010, the school board completed a series of cuts that resulted in about a $33-million reduction in funding. As a result of that there were changes to programs, staffing, and one of the big fallouts areas was in terms of maintenance."

Eau Claire's mill rate is lower than many similar school districts. The mill rate is the amount per $1,000 of your property's value that goes to the school district. According to the Department of Public Instruction, the mill rate in the Eau Claire School District was $9.40 for the 2015-2016 school year. Compare that to Wausau School District which had a $11.46 mill rate or La Crosse which has a mill rate of $12.37.

"We're the eighth largest school district in the state. We rank 272 out of 424 school districts in spending. So as a result in that reduction in spending, we have been in a situation since 2010 where we've been running on a deficit. It's been anywhere from $3.5 million to $1.5 million," says Hardebeck. "And we're at a point now that if we keep reducing our fund balance, it's going to affect our credit rating, it's going to affect our ability to short term borrow to make our payrolls, so it's going to have pretty significant outcomes for us."

"If ultimately the people of the Eau Claire school district choose to vote themselves a tax increase -- God bless them. That's truly the way a referendum works and you get what you vote for," says Westrate. "But I just hope they do it with truthful knowledge and not just, "it's for the children". If spending more money had an automatic result in higher educational outcomes, we would all be geniuses. I mean, that has been proven to not be the case over the last 60 years."

The Eau Claire School District spends $418 less per pupil than the state average. Hardebeck says if there wasn't that difference, they would not have a deficit.

Ultimately, the voters will get the final say on November 8.

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