- Associated Press - Thursday, December 17, 2015

MADISON, Wis. (AP) - Wisconsin school officials urged Republican lawmakers Thursday to scrap a bill restricting how often they could take spending referendums to voters, saying the Legislature shouldn’t tie their hands as they struggle to keep their districts running.

A host of school board members and superintendents appeared before the Assembly education committee during a public hearing on the bill. Nearly all of them questioned why Republicans want to inject themselves in local affairs.

“I never thought I’d be here lecturing Republicans about local control,” Pepin Area Schools Superintendent Bruce Quinton said. “Our stance is firm on this matter. School referendums are a local matter.”

The bill’s chief sponsors, Rep. Michael Schraa and Sen. Duey Stroebel, insisted the bill is about protecting taxpayers from districts’ repeated attempts to pass failed referendums.

“Legislators … represent a lot more people than school boards do,” Schraa told the committee.

The bill would prohibit school districts from bringing a failed referendum back to voters for two years. The proposal also would mandate votes could take place only during the April election and the November general election. Schraa and Stroebel plan to amend the measure to reduce the waiting period to a year after their colleagues said two years is too long.

They told the committee the bill is necessary because school districts are abusing the referendum process by resurrecting failed proposals multiple times during a single year and scheduling elections on odd days when turnout will be low. That leads to a handful of people deciding whether an entire community’s property taxes will go up, they said.

“Voters who vote ‘no’ on a referendum should be afforded the same respect as those who vote ‘yes,’” Stroebel said.

According to the state Department of Public Instruction, Wisconsin school districts have attempted nearly 2,800 referenda since 1994, with a little more than half approved. Since July 2011, districts have attempted 380 referenda, with 63 percent passing; 31 districts have passed 36 referenda worth $196 million within two years of voters turning down a referendum. Wisconsin currently has 424 school districts.

“We’re trying to fix something that isn’t really a big problem,” committee member Sandy Pope, D-Cross Plains, said. “Why is it we feel we know better than locally elected school boards when it comes to knowing what they need?”

Kelly Davis, a Whitewater school board member, warned that if a referendum fails it would be difficult for schools to maintain their programming during the yearlong moratorium. Charles Poches, administrator of the Portage Community School District, told the committee his district laid off 15 teachers, moved sixth graders to the middle school and closed two schools in 2013 so they wouldn’t have to ask for more than $2.6 million per year in a referendum that spring. The district is preparing to bring another referendum to voters this spring seeking up to $2.6 million per year for five years, he said.

“My board … has consistently shown they are willing to make difficult decisions that reflect our community’s needs,” he said. “If we are going to require school districts to ask their communities for more local revenues to maintain program or, sadly, just to keep their doors open, shouldn’t we allow them as the locally elected officials to make decision that best serve their community and their students?”

The bill’s prospects are unclear. Committee Chairman Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, hasn’t scheduled a vote on the measure.

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Robin Vos didn’t immediately respond to an email message inquiring about the bill’s chances. Myranda Tanck, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, said he’s reviewing the one-year moratorium amendment and will discuss the bill with his caucus.

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This story has been updated to correct that the Portage school district laid off teachers and made other restructuring moves ahead of a 2013 referendum rather than planning to make those changes if a 2016 referendum fails.

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Follow Todd Richmond on Twitter at https://twitter.com/trichmond1

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