WAUKESHA, Wis. – Wisconsin school districts spent more than $325,000 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 Nov. 8. 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 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 complete list of school districts and what they spent is available here.
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 voters 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 renovation in the two failed referendums.
The amount spent by the school districts included any surveys of the public done prior to the referendums, as well as mailings, advertising, printing, postage and the creation of promotional materials. Calculation of the total spending, however, was dependent on the districts’ interpretation of spending on the referendum and their cooperation with the open records request.
For example, the Madison Metropolitan School District was reluctant to share any information about spending to inform the public about its referendum. The district asked voters to approve $26 million in spending above the state-imposed revenue caps for school operations. The referendum was approved with 74.3 percent voter support.
A month after the district received the open records request, associate general counsel Matt Bell responded, “Please note that the District did not ‘advertise’ or ‘promote’ the referendum, thus no responsive records exist.”
“All of the costs related to those informational materials were internal costs and thus are not identified as a line item on any budget but instead were subsumed within the the general budget of the department providing the service. For example, printing of informational materials was done by the District’s printing department and was not singled out from any other printing work done by that Department. So no record exists documenting that specific task of printing informational referendum materials. Similarly, the time staff spent providing information regarding the referendum is also not identified in any District records. Any cost associated with that time is subsumed within the employee’s’ salary.”
Following a request for an interview with Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham to explain the district’s reluctance to share how much it spent, the superintendent emailed, “We stand by our response.”
When asked if district taxpayers have the right to know how much MMSD spent on the referendum, Cheatham emailed that the district spent $706 on “informational sessions and other informational materials” from the existing communications budget.
That amount would not include the time and cost of the employees working on the informational materials. No further explanation was ever provided by the Madison school district.
Madison wasn’t the only district to object to the wording of the open records request, asking how much was “spent to advertise and promote the referendum.”
“Oregon School District has no records in response to your request. By law, we are not authorized to use school district funds to promote a referendum,” said Jina Jonen, the in-house counsel and director of human resources for the Oregon School District.
After it was explained to Jonen that “advertise and promote” did not mean expressly advocate for the passage of the referendum, the district revealed it spent $14,853.76 to advertise the referendum for $1.5 million in recurring operations spending above the state-imposed revenue caps.
Arrowhead’s Superintendent Laura Myrah also objected to the wording of the open records request.
“No money was budgeted by Arrowhead to advertise and promote the referendum, as those terms sound like advocating to me,” she wrote in her email response. “It would be illegal for school district resources to be used for advocacy related to a referendum.” But Myrah also included the information about the amount spent to advertise and promote the referendums.
Two districts, the Kewaskum School District and Plum City School District, have yet to respond to the open records requests emailed to them on Nov. 7. Both districts promised, after repeated requests, to mail their responses to Watchdog’s Madison office. No reply to the open records requests had been received as of Wednesday.
In the open records requests and in the emails that followed, the school districts were reminded state law requires them to comply, “as soon as practicable and without delay.”