Spring, 2014 | ELECTION WATCH * INTER-COUNTY LEADER
Siren School referendum raises divisive issues
Jean Koelz | Staff writer
SIREN—On Tuesday, April 1, residents of the Siren School District will decide if property owners should be taxed an additional $250,000 per year for the next five years to help the school balance its budget. If passed, every property owner would pay an additional $60 a year for every $100,000 worth of property owned. Both the Luck and the St. Croix Falls school districts also have funding referenda on the spring ballot, but both of them are primarily for technology investment. Of the 14 school districts throughout Burnett and Polk counties, Siren is the only one asking for help to pay for current operational expenses.
Most of the time, when a school asks for additional funding, it is typically for new construction, remodeling, to make a big purchase or to start a new program. Statewide, there are 45 school referenda being voted on this spring and less than a fourth of them are for the purpose of raising money for operating costs.
While school leaders are quick to point out that this money is not for anything new, voters are left to wonder whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
It’s been almost 25 years since Wisconsin imposed revenue caps on its school districts. This means that the portion of the property tax that goes to the local school district is limited by law to a formula based on the actual number of enrolled students and a preset per student value. If the school needs more than that, then it has to get taxpayer permission to tax more through a public referendum.
The Department of Instruction keeps a database of every referendum since 1990. There have been nearly 3,000 referenda statewide, with voters approving about one-third of them. According to the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance, that amounts to $693 million in additional funding. In Burnett and Polk counties, the rate of passage is even higher. In the last 20 years, the 14 school districts in Burnett (three) and Polk (11) have gone to voters 83 times to ask for additional funding and were successful 54 times (although six of those were resolutions passing funding for energy-efficiency purposes that did not require voter approval). Put another way, of the 77 requests to increase school taxes on local property owners, voters approved 54 of them—a success rate of 77 percent, more than double the state average.
It’s safe to say that voters in Burnett and Polk counties have historically been very supportive of their school districts. However, a host of factors, including a slow economy and an aging population, have caused the well to run a bit dry. School boards are hesitant to ask for more money because the success rate has slowed down. Of the 77 referenda previously mentioned, only eight of them were issued in the past five years. Three of them failed, of those, two were for Siren School.
Back in 1998, Siren residents voted for a $7.7 million debt issuance to construct a school addition and do some remodeling. However, in the same year, voters struck down a referendum to provide an additional $125,000 annually for five years to meet operating costs. One year later, voters approved the measure. When that five-year term was due to expire, the school asked for and voters approved another $250,000 annually from 2004-2009. In 2009, voters were asked to renew the funding and voted “no” on two occasions.
Siren District Administrator Scott Johnson and members of the school board have explained that over the last five years they have experimented with various cuts and ideas to live within the budget. A notable example was the reduction to one principal a few years ago with the hiring of Peggy Ryan, who resigned last year. The school board has been very responsive to staff and parents when they find out such cost-cutting measures are detrimental to educational quality or to the students’ well-being. So, last year, the board found itself in a position of having to make a hard choice: pass a deficit budget or make unwanted cuts?
At the annual fall meeting last August, the school board presented an approved 2013-14 budget with a $320,000 deficit. Knowing that it was an unsustainable way to finance the school, the stated intention was to propose a funding referendum in the spring of 2014.
At stake for the school
If the measure passes, Siren School will enjoy sufficient funding for the next five years. In addition, Siren’s long-term debt will be paid off in the same amount of time, presumably providing relief to both the school and to area taxpayers.
If the measure doesn’t pass, then Siren’s fund balance will deteriorate putting them in a position of needing to do short-term borrowing at an unfavorable interest rate. Additionally, Siren will have to make immediate budget cuts that may include program elimination or job losses.
At stake for the community
As Johnson explained to members of the Siren Chamber of Commerce at a recent meeting, “In most communities, the school district is the pulse… the hub… the life of the community. When a school system starts to erode, you start to see homes for sale, you see less people attracted to the community, and ultimately it has a ripple effect throughout the entire community.”
Appealing to the audience’s business sense, Johnson built the case that what is good for the school is, in turn, good for the real estate market and, in turn, good for local business.
But is it true?
A local realtor who asked to remain anonymous because of relationships with school staff disagreed with Johnson. “In a market like this where most of the real estate sales come from out-of-state residents buying a vacation property, the quality of the local school rarely comes up,” the realtor explained. “In fact, since most of the buyers are at or near retirement, increasing property taxes could do the most harm of all.”
Of course it’s generally understood that a strong school is good for the community. In a small town like Siren, the school is a sizeable employer and the hub of social activity. And it’s also true that the local businesses and the school have something of a symbiotic relationship, each supporting the other in various ways. While no one wants to see a school fail or have people lose their jobs, local property owners are raising some significant issues in response to the upcoming vote.
Taxation without representation
Remember the Boston Tea Party from your history lessons? American colonists were fed up with paying taxes to a government that gave them no voice. It was easy for the British to impose taxes on citizens that had no representation.
Burnett County is unique in that over 60 percent of its residential property is owned by nonresidents. That means that taxes collected for providing local services, maintaining local infrastructure and supporting our schools come from people who don’t get to vote and rarely benefit from the spending.
A Minnesota retiree who owns a summer home in the Siren School District is angry about the way his property taxes have climbed over the years. With regard to the referendum, he says, “I’m not happy about it. Why should a minority of property owners get to decide what happens to the rest of us? There’s something wrong there.”
Something for nothing
In a few discussions with local voters and nonresident property owners alike, an uncomfortable question arises that no one knows quite how to ask. Eventually, a person will blurt out, “How come people who don’t pay taxes get to vote on how the rest of us will be taxed?”
In other communities such as college towns, that question might refer to a population of renters who can vote to increase the tax on their landlords’ property. In the Siren community, however, the question most likely refers to right of Native Americans living on sovereign tribal lands to vote on such things as a school referendum. Siren School has a significant student population residing on tax-exempt tribal land, and their families have a stake in the healthy future of Siren School. The inherent legal and ethical question is whether a person who is exempt from property taxes should be permitted to vote to raise someone else’s taxes. It’s a fair question, depending on one’s point of view, but it can’t be openly discussed out of fear of the racial powder keg it could ignite.
The bottom line, as some property owners see it, is that some people have to pay taxes without having a say in the matter, and others who have a say in the matter never have to pay taxes. Neither of these concerns have anything to do with the merit of the referendum itself.
Let the voters decide
At Siren School’s annual meeting last fall, school representatives expressed confidence that they had tried everything and felt it was time to put the question to the voters. As Johnson stated it then, “It’s really up to the local electors to decide what they want to do and if they want the school to continue at its current level of quality.”
At the recent Chamber meeting, Johnson pressed a little harder, “Can we afford not to do this?” Ironically, making it a question about affordability is as much a part of the issue as the desire to support the school. As much as Tuesday’s vote is about whether or not we should raise revenue for Siren, it’s just as likely to be a statement about whether voters have any more money to give.