Referenda belie need to increase state spending

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here you go:

Despite the fact the state of Wisconsin spent more than $450 million more on K-12 education last fiscal year than it did four years ago, the persistent lie about Republicans “gutting education” is apparently taking its toll as legislative Republicans signal a willingness to spend even more in the next budget. But two enormous school referenda by the Germantown and Kewaskum school districts show why state legislators should hold the line on state education spending.

The Germantown and Kewaskum school boards have both decided to put large school referenda to a vote on the November ballot. The referenda are similar in both scope and intent. In Kewaskum, the School Board wants to borrow more than $28.4 million. With an estimated 3.25 percent interest rate for 20 years, that would be a total expenditure of about $38.7 million.

For a little perspective, the Kewaskum School District has had declining enrollment and had a total enrollment of 1,847 kids last school year compared to 1,931 kids in the 2011-12 school year. Kewaskum has a population of about 4,030 people with a median household income of almost $58,000. The school referendum represents spending of about $21,000 per kid, or $9,600 per resident of Kewaskum. It is a lot of money any way one slices it.

The Kewaskum School Board has a list of things they want to spend the money on, including renovating large sections of the schools, upgrading and expanding a security camera system, installing sprinkler systems, remodeling entrances, adding a gym and a lengthy collection of other routine needs.

In Germantown, the School Board will ask the voters to borrow $84 million. Using the same 3.25 percent interest rate for 20 years Kewaskum is estimating, the total expense would be more than $114 million. Again, for perspective, Germantown’s enrollment has been declining slightly. Last school year, the entire district had 3,931 kids compared to 3,994 in the 2011-12 school year. The superintendent projects flat enrollment for the next few years. Germantown has a population of 19,791 with a median household income of almost $75,000. The referendum breaks down to about $29,000 per kid or nearly $6,000 per Germantown resident.

The Germantown referendum is even more ambitious than Kewaskum’s. The School Board wants to spend the money on renovating the elementary schools ($20.7 million), the middle school ($10.3 million), high school ($26.2 million), building a performing arts center ($12.5 million), building a gym and track ($8.6 million) and a swimming pool ($5.8 million).

While Kewaskum Superintendent James Smasal ignored multiple requests to discuss the referendum, Germantown School Superintendent Jeff Holmes was exceedingly open in discussing the referendum. He stressed the Germantown School District has been disciplined stewards of taxpayer money for many years and had delivered high results with the highest average ACT scores of every public school district in the county. Holmes characterizes the referendum as a comprehensive list of spending initiatives the School Board believes is necessary to upgrade the district for the next generation of kids.

It appears the Kewaskum school referendum has the same goal. Both school boards seem to have thrown everything they can think of into their respective referendum instead of asking the voters for multiple, smaller referenda or giving the voters some choices. It is a savvy political strategy that bloats the referendum, but seeks to cobble together enough constituencies to gain passage.

If I lived in either Germantown or Kewaskum, I would vote against either referendum. They are both too large, too expensive and include far too many “nice to haves.”

But this is how it is supposed to work. When the state Legislature passed Act 10, they gave school boards enormous authority to properly manage their budgets within the revenue limits. Then, if after the school boards had managed their resources appropriately and decided that they still needed more money, they can ask the voters for more money through a referendum. If the voters of the local community think their school board has been good stewards and the additional expense is justified, they can vote to raise their own taxes appropriately.

If Germantown residents want to spend $114 million to revamp their schools and build a pool, PAC, etc., then so be it. It is their community, their kids and their taxes. The same goes for Kewaskum. Sitting here in West Bend, I think they would be insane to do so, but it is not my community or my money. This is what local control is all about. And credit goes to those local school boards for putting the referendum on the November presidential ballot to ensure maximum turnout.

As long as local communities have the power to decide to increase spending on their local schools if they so choose, then there is no need for the state government to continually increase state spending on the same thing. The state Legislature did their job supporting school districts when they gave them power over their budgets and a mechanism to ask the voters for more money if they need it. The legislature now has a responsibility to be frugal with state tax dollars and let local taxpayers decide for themselves how much they want to spend on their schools.