On the Ballot: How to Fact Check Your School District

School Property Taxes

Mar. 19, 2024

When your school district wants to pass a referendum, it will say anything to make you believe that it’s broke, the state is cutting its aid, and that neighboring districts are rolling in cash. Do yourself a favor. Don’t buy it. The only way that you will get an accurate picture of a district’s fiscal health is by looking up the facts for yourself. Here’s how to do it.

First, check out the MacIver Institute’s comprehensive analysis on the 2024 spring recurring referendums entitled “What School Districts Don’t Want You To Know About Their Referendums.”

Then check out the tips below:

How much revenue does your district actually get?

Many districts try to pass their revenue limit off as their actual revenue, because it’s a much lower amount than they actually get. The Wisconsin School Public Relations Association even claims that schools cannot spend more than their revenue limits, which is an outright lie. There are so many exceptions for what is subject to the revenue limit that it is almost meaningless other than as a protection for taxpayers. Without the revenue limits, school districts would be able to raise property taxes as high as they wanted without a referendum.

To find out how much revenue your district actually receives, go to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s School Finance Data Warehouse.

Start by clicking on the link “Revenue Limit Per Member,” change the year to 2022, and select your district. For example, if you select “Edgerton,” you’ll see its “Revenue Limit Per Member” is $10,822. That’s what the district is telling voters is its “Per-Student Revenue.”

Now click on the link “Comparative Revenue Per Member.” This time, you’ll see Edgerton’s “Total Revenue Per Member” is $17,146. That’s 58% higher than what the district is telling voters.

What revenue should you count?

Districts will attempt to convince you that much of their revenue can’t be counted because they aren’t free to spend it however they want. You can choose to accept this reasoning or reject it. (After all, revenue is revenue, and they are spending it all). Even if you accept their premise, however, you would be mistaken to accept their math. To check it out, you’ll need a copy of their current operating budget.

Every school district budget is different, but it should be organized by “funds,” which are also referred to as “pots of money.” Fund 10 is the most important, because that’s the general fund. That money can be spent on anything, and that’s the account where the money from an operating referendum goes. Fund 27 is special education, fund 39 is the building referendum, fund 50 is food service, and fund 80 is community service. Look up the total revenue for each fund. Keep an eye out for transfers between the funds, because you don’t want to count the same dollars twice.

For Edgerton, the district doesn’t think its community service fund or building referendum revenue should count as revenue. When we removed funds 39 and 80, the revenue per pupil dropped to $14,910. That’s still 35% higher than the “revenue limits” the district is using in its campaign literature.

The district then said only Fund 10 should be counted. Well, the Fund 10 revenue comes out to $13,248 per student. That’s still 22% higher than the district’s revenue limit of $10,822 per pupil.

Is state aid being cut?

First of all, it doesn’t matter if state aid has been cut, because property taxes would automatically increase to make up the difference. However, if you still want to know how much aid your district is getting, you’ll find it in the district’s budget. Be sure to check all the different funds. It will also show what your district gets from federal sources as well.

The Wisconsin Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s (LFB) website is an alternate source for state funding information. Look up your district in these reports: Estimated Effects of K-12 Funding for School Districts Under Acts 11 and 19” and “2023-24 General School Aids Amounts for All School Districts.

It’s important to point out that the state has not cut school aid. Total state spending on education this budget increased by 6.9%. Total state spending in the last budget increased by 4.8%. The budget before that increased state education spending by 5.8%. The reality is that every budget routinely includes an “historic” increase in public education funding. If your district lost aid, its most likely because of declining enrollment.

How much covid aid did they get?

Most school district plugged their covid aid into their general operations and used the opportunity to increase spending. There were few limits on what the money could be spent on. Now that the covid aid is running out, districts want to maintain that high level of spending. That’s part of the reason why they’re going to referendum.

There were several different types of covid aid. It’s tricky trying to track it all down on DPI’s website. Fortunately, LFB compiled it all in an information paper.

Did covid aid keep taxes down?

Some districts, like Edgerton, claim that the covid aid was used to keep taxes low. That’s not true. What they probably mean is that they choose not to go to referendum while the covid aid was flowing. Had they actually used the covid aid to lower taxes, then taxes would have automatically increased until the revenue limit was reached once the covid aid ended.

How much are teachers making?

Many districts are claiming that their teachers are underpaid and that they’ll all get raises if the referendum passes. That’s a subjective claim, and so is the counter argument that teachers are overpaid, so tread lightly. If you insist on making this an issue, however, DPI has the data you need on its Public Staff Reports page.

The “Public Administrative Salary Report will tell you what your superintendent is making (salary and benefits) and how it compares to other superintendents.

The “Public Teacher Salary Report” will show you the range of salaries and benefits in your district, including averages, and how they stack up to other districts.

For context, remember that the median family income in Wisconsin is $77,330 a year, according to the Federal Reserve. Don’t forget, you’re comparing an individual’s 9-month income to an entire family’s 12-month income. Also, the IRS says fringe benefits count as income. The average salary and fringe benefits for teachers statewide is $81,072, according to DPI’s data.

How good is the education in my school district?

Chances are that it’s not good at all. In 2023, 38.5% of Wisconsin students were proficient in math and 40.4% were proficient in English. You can see how your district is doing by downloading its DPI report card.

The report cards include a lot of metrics designed to soften the blow. You want to ignore all that and go straight to “Performance Levels by Year.” It should be on the pages 3 & 4.