Walker expressed his support for an increase to baseline revenue levels for school districts that have been locked into lower spending levels since the limits were put in place in 1993. The existing floor is $9,100 per student. The change would raise that to $9,400 in 2018-19, and to $9,800 by 2022-2023, allowing schools to increase property taxes to that level without going to referendum.
But the law would punish schools, like Southern Door, that failed in referendum attempts within the last three years. Southern Door sought a budget override in 2017 of $936,000 for two years, but the referendum failed by just 24 votes.
If the change is enacted, Southern Door would be barred from increasing its revenue limit for three more years. At the time it went to referendum, there was no hint that the state would institute a change like Walker is supporting now.
“They need to change the criteria of the legislation,” said Southern Door Superintendent Patti Vickman. “The retroactive nature of it is unfair to the students and unfair to the community. Normally there would be a grace period.”
Vickman said Southern Door has traditionally spent conservatively, and now the school and its students are being punished for that. While Walker said the stipulation was added out of respect for voters, Vickman said voters were not asked the same question in the referendum that this legislation is answering for them now.
“When the referendum failed last april, our residents were not aware that conditions would not allow us to bring our revenue in line with other schools,” she said. Southern Door is the only Door County school below the $9,400 per student spending threshold. “While we respect the voter, we feel the intentions are being misinterpreted. With the three-year freeze, we’re also being imposed a penalty for a year that was not even being asked for in the referendum question.”
Vickman said if this legislation had been on the table last year, it would have impacted whether the school even sought a referendum. At a minimum she said the district’s communication would have been different. The new legislation makes future referendums even more risky.
“We could go to referendum again, but the stakes are even higher,” she said. “If it failed again, as I understand it, it would restart the clock on the three-year waiting period.”
Walker has also called for a $100 per student increase in sparsity aid to rural districts, but that also won’t help Southern Door.
While Sevastopol, Gibraltar, and Washington Island all qualify for sparsity aid, Southern Door does not. Though the district is the most geographically spread out of the five Door County schools, its enrollment of 1,070 students exceeds the sparsity aid limit of 745.
At its Jan. 29 meeting, the Southern Door School Board voted to send a letter to residents urging them to contact representatives about the legislation.