What could be in the potential referenda?

The potential referenda could have two separate referendum questions, one focused on facilities and another focused on providing funds for MMSD to continue operating. 

A facilities referendum totaling about $315M would include: 

  • Significant renovations that would transform learning environments in our four main high schools at approximately $70M per high school, $280M for all four high schools.

  • Moving our Capital High Westside students out of an over-capacity leased strip mall site and our Capital High Eastside students out of borrowed space inside Lapham Elementary School into a permanent home in a school building we own, Hoyt School at $6M.

  • Building a new elementary school in the Rimrock area to give underserved students and families a much-needed school in their neighborhood at $25M–$30M.

Operating Referendum FAQs

How would the operating referendum money be used?

A $36M operating referendum to exceed revenue limits would allow us to: 

  • Provide a variety of student programming in arts, music, science/technology, athletics, and more

  • Maintain low class sizes and current teacher positions

  • Attract and retain high quality teachers, with a focus on hiring teachers of color

  • Attract and retain students and families in Madison

  • Continue our investments in priorities outlined in our Strategic Framework, including important actions that support the District’s equity vision – investing in curriculum and materials that are culturally and linguistically relevant, building a talented workforce that better represents the diversity of our student population through programs like the Grow Our Own staff-to-teachers program, expanding opportunities for students of color, and so on.

Why does MMSD need a bigger operational budget?

While 2019-20 saw a slight increase in revenue limit funding from the State for the first time in four years, in this State budget, it largely continues a ten year pattern of underfunding K-12 education. 

The State’s current funding model, where the State controls the district’s authority to increase property taxes rather than the school  board, limits the community of Madison’s ability to invest in schools in line with our community values. Going to referendum allows the community to take local control back from the State.

The current State funding model for public education could lead to $30M in budget cuts over the next 3 years in MMSD, which would impact teacher positions and student programming. A balanced budgeting approach for the future will require both resource reallocation and strategies to increase revenue. 

An operating referendum would provide $36M over four years that would support current staffing levels and continue the districts investments in line with the Strategic Framework goals and outcomes for all students.

What will be the impact for taxpayers?

The district considers three major factors to determine impact on taxpayers. First, MMSD expects minimal enrollment growth over the next four years, which helps to minimize increases in the tax levy. Second, moderate to strong tax base growth estimates diffuse the impact on existing taxpayers.  Third, unfortunately the district already predicts the maximum loss of State aid each year. Therefore, any increased spending in the district would not increase the loss of State aid.

While strong real estate values, including new construction activity, will expand the tax base and help offset the tax impact for existing property owners, the property values in Madison are also increasing.  No matter the MMSD property tax rate, rising property values would cause taxes to increase.

The graphic below shows an increase in the MMSD tax levy for the potential operating referendum for an average Madison home value in 2019-20.

Operations Referenda Bottom Line

What are the financial details of Madison’s operating referendum? How does this differ from the 2016 operating referendum?

The successful 2016 operating referendum asked local voters if they would support MMSD increasing property taxes to support the district rising our revenue limit by a cumulative of $26 million over four years in order to protect from changing State funding models that put MMSD at risk of future budget deficits.  The 2016 referendum was recurring, which means that this funding does not go away after four years. It remains in the base of the MMSD tax levy. Ultimately, between 2016 and 2019, the MMSD School Board increased taxes by $22 million over this period, only increasing property taxes to the level that was absolutely needed to balance budgets.  

The 2020 operating referendum, if placed on the ballot, would also be recurring. Which means that if passed, it would allow the Board of Education to raise property taxes permanently by up to $36 million cumulatively over the next four years. The increase would be phased in over four years as seen in the graph below

Operating Referendum to Exceed Revenue Limits

The specific annual amounts are designed to support operational needs of the district. Without the operational budget support, the district will be required to reduce the number of teachers, administrators, and support staff. The Board of Education will decide annually if all of this authority is needed or if they want to ‘under levy’ as they did over 2017-18 and 2018-19.

Does the district need an operating referendum even though the state budget increased aid across the state? 

All school districts in Wisconsin operate under a fixed funding formula for revenue; it is simply a set dollar amount per student multiplied by the number of students, which yields a number that is the maximum funding with which the district can operate that year (e.g., 100 students X $10,000 per student = 1M). The revenue to provide the set funding amount ($1M in our example) comes from two sources, State Equalization Aid and local property taxes. If State aid goes up, property taxes can decrease. If State aid goes down, local property taxes must increase to yield maximum funding. Only the blend of percentage of revenue coming from State Equalization Aid and local property taxes changes, the maximum funding amount does not change. Therefore, if additional funds are necessary to operate, an additional source of revenue, in this case an operating referendum, must be identified.

Even though the State increased the total amount of State aid in the 2019-21 budget, the funding formula is such that MMSD lost 15%, or $6.5 million, from last year to this year. This funding formula is driven by an equalized measure of property value. Because Madison is growing in property value, Madison is penalized in the current aid funding formula.

What is revenue authority?

Through the state budget process, the legislature establishes a limit, or control, on the revenue a school district is entitled to receive each year from property taxes and state aid. Over the past ten years, these controls have become increasingly restrictive. Today, Wisconsin public schools operate with less revenue authority per pupil than in 2008. However, school districts are allowed a local option to increase local school district revenues through a voter-approved referendum.

The operating referendum asks voters for authority to increase property taxes to generate revenue. Each year through the budget process, the Board of Education decides how much revenue authority to use. The Board did not use it’s full revenue authority approved in 2016, in order to control property taxes, it under levied by $4M.

What is MMSD’s current maximum revenue limit per member?

The State Department of Public Instruction (DPI) determines and publishes these numbers each year. With all adjustments made, our revenue limit per member maximum for 2019/20 is $12,749. This amount of funding is not all passed on to taxpayers, as the State provides us with some general/equalization aid that is deducted from this number. Additionally, there are other expenses included in the overall property tax levy which are not tied to a per pupil cost according to DPI, such as the Community Fund, which supports the entire community in the City of Madison.

More information on the revenue limit formula

What if the operating referendum fails?

If we are not able to increase our operating budget, we will not be able to keep up with cost of living and inflation costs. This could have a direct impact on our ability to retain and attract high quality teachers, it would also likely increase our student to teacher staffing ratios.  Eighty-seven percent 87% of our budget is related to our staffing costs in support of students, we would not be able to close budget gaps without affecting our workforce.

How will additional operating revenue be spent?

The facilities referendum will fund renovation of the four main high schools, the transfer of Capital High West and Capital High East to one district-owned facility, and a new elementary school in the Rimrock area. It is clear and straightforward. An operating referendum, on the other hand, is complex and can be confusing. Along with a request for the ability to raise the revenue limit, one might expect a tangible list of things that that money would purchase or fund.

But unlike the facilities referendum that seeks funds to pay for concrete items like building renovations, the 2020 referenda will also have an operational referendum. This means that the operational referendum funds would be available for use to help keep our 50 schools operating. In other words, if the referendum passes, it would allow us to continue the services and supports we are currently providing students without having to cut large numbers of staff, increase class sizes, and make deeper and more disruptive cuts in coming years.

The funds would be built into our budget each year and used to fund things like:

  • Continuing and expanding strategies that have begun to narrow achievement gaps in line with the Strategic Framework

  • Avoiding reductions in our staff and teaching workforce

  • Hiring and retaining the very best teachers, with a focus on diversifying our workforce

  • Strengthening investments inline with the Strategic Framework, such as supporting the Black Excellence Coalition Fund, Grow Your Own diversity hiring strategies, and increasing opportunities for youth of color and women like the Early College STEM Academy.

What will be the impact for the recurring operating referendum ask to the taxpayers?

While strong real estate values, including new construction activity, will expand the tax base and help offset the tax impact for existing property owners, the property values in Madison are also increasing.  No matter the MMSD property tax rate, rising property values would cause taxes to increase.

For the potential operating referendum question, the average per year estimated tax increase for the average home value is $198. If passed, the total ask a cumulative $36M operating referendum over four years. The average annual impact per $100,000 of home value will be approximately $66. The Board has not made a final decision on what amount to go to referendum for at this point. When they do, specific annual dollar amounts will be available to the public.

What is a recurring referendum?

While this answer is multi-faceted, it’s probably most straightforward to state it this way: in a recurring referendum, if passed, the Board of Education would be able to levy that additional amount ($36M over four years) forever, without going back to the community each year for permission to exceed the revenue limit.  The Board still could not go over the amount approved by voters, essentially the district receives a new revenue limit.

Which begs the questions -- will the Board of Education exercise this option and will taxes increase? That depends on a few factors and how they change over time including the revenue limit (the maximum amount of revenue that may be raised through state of Wisconsin general aid and property taxes as set by the State of Wisconsin) and costs to operate (Cost of Living Adjustment based on the increase in the Consumer Price Index from the third quarter of one year through the third quarter of the next year, changes in insurance rates, etc.). We do not know at this time if and/or how often the Board of Education would be in a position to need to exercise the full authority to levy that the voters could give them, but if the operating referendum passes, they would have the authority to do so. 

Strategic budget decisions are made by the Board of Education through the annual budgeting process. You can read more about our budget process and see past budgets at mmsd.org/budget.

Facilities Referendum FAQs

Why is MMSD seeking to renovate all four high schools at once?

“The evidence is unambiguous – the school building impacts student health, thinking, and performance.” – Harvard School of Public Health 

MMSD identified the most critical projects based on an index of facility conditions, enrollment projections, city planning information, populations shifts, community feedback and facilities studies going back more than 10 years. For the last two years, the district has been getting feedback from the community via our creation of a Long Range Facility Plan.  The Long Range Facility Plan can be found here: accountability.madison.k12.wi.us/building-excellence

Renovating the high schools gives MMSD an opportunity to impact one third of our students, in every attendance area across the city, and all of our students over time as they progress into high school. MMSD's families and students have told us to bring our school buildings into the 21st century with innovative, modern, flexible, classrooms that support multiple learning styles. We see the futures of MMSD in safe spaces that are well-lit, inviting, accessible, and climate-controlled and that foster engagement, relationship building, and positive climate and culture.

Investments in facilities would better reflect the value the community places on Madison’s growing minds and future citizens, leaders, and workforce and that represent the cultures and values of the students and families they serve.  If ultimately approved, MMSD would work with two firms, Plunkett Raysich Architects (PRA) and Zimmerman Architectural Studios (ZAS), that specialize in designing K-12 learning/instructional environments. PRA is the same firm that worked with Madison College to develop the Madison College South Campus by engaging students and the community in design charrettes when it was time to design internal spaces. This process will focus on elevating student voice, meeting instructional needs, reflecting the unique culture of each school, and representing the cultures of the students who attend each school.

My child attends an elementary or middle so they will not benefit from the proposed high school renovation projects. How will this benefit my middle school or elementary school?

All elementary and middle school students will benefit from the proposed projects as they become high school students when the projects are starting to be completed if the referendum passes. In addition, every school in Madison will benefit from renovating and updating the high schools because MMSD’s trades people who complete repairs should be able to complete maintenance work orders more quickly at elementary and middle schools as the need for their services at the high schools should decline steeply after the renovations.

Doesn't the district have an operating budget for facility improvement? 

Our annual operating budget for maintenance is about $4 million. It covers maintenance to keep buildings clean, safe, and in the best possible condition. With decreasing state funding and increasing pressure on our operating budget, like most school districts, we need to go to referendum to fund larger capital projects. Many of our surrounding school districts have also gone to facility referendums in the last few years to invest in their facilities. 

What will be the impact for taxpayers?

The facilities/capital referendum would be on average $202 per year for the average homeowner, which is then paid off over 20 years. There are three facilities projects (high schools, Capital High relocation, new Rimrock area elementary school) that add $61, $1, and $7, respectively on average, of annual impact per $100,000 of home value for the facilities referendum.

The table below shows the estimated annual impact of the potential facilities projects per $100,00 of home value.

Facilities Referendum Bottom Line

Are bathroom renovations and air temperature control included in the facility plan? Are gender neutral bathrooms a priority?

Yes, we have heard very clearly from students that bathroom and air temperature and air quality are of the highest concerns. While the facility recommendations provide so much more than this, we will ensure that bathroom work is prioritized for the timing of the projects. Gender neutral bathrooms are included in our planning efforts.  Students would also have the ability to participate in all the design work, should the referendum pass in 2020.

General and Historical FAQs

Will any schools be closed?

There is no current plan to close any MMSD schools. MMSD has completed a 20-year enrollment study and enrollment is projected to increase by about 700 students in the next 15 years. We anticipate that there may be a need and an opportunity in the future to exercise flexibility in how buildings are used (e.g., organizing by different grade levels) to maximize facilities and meet students’ and families’ needs. For additional detail, see the Long Range Facilities Plan here: accountability.madison.k12.wi.us/building-excellence  

Will MMSD realize any cost savings through the referenda?

Yes. MMSD is currently leasing a site for Nuestro Mundo Community School and a site for Capital High West. Nuestro Mundo has outgrown the capacity of the current leased Monona location, limiting its ability to grow and meet the demands of the community. Additionally, the leased space has caused challenges to school operations, including limiting investments to the building and playground. MMSD has always envisioned Nuestro Mundo in a district-owned building within the City of Madison.It is anticipated that a new elementary school in the Rimrock area could become the home for Nuestro Mundo Community School or the new home for Allis Elementary School students. Either way, MMSD would have additional space and no longer need to lease space. This would result in an annual savings of approximately $177,485.

The leased Capital High West location is over capacity (designed for 60 students and currently holding 87), expensive, and limits our ability to make investments that support instruction. Capital High’s lease expires in 2020 making now the time to find an alternative solution that is better suited for students. With Capital High East and Capital High West moving into one, MMSD-owned facility, MMSD will save $114,000 annually.

The total savings from these two leases would be about $300,000 between the two leases. If the facility referendum passes, the savings from these leases would be used to operate the new school in the Rimrock area.

Don’t states fund public education?

In Wisconsin, public schools are funded by a combination of state dollars and local property taxes. This proposal asks voters to give the local school board authority to exceed the revenue limit authority provided by the state legislature.

How has Madison budgeted in the current environment?

We believe we have a responsible approach to budget development, repurposing funding to focus on priorities, finding efficiencies and staying focused on teaching and learning. But even with this smart approach, over time, the State funding approach requires that local community efforts must be taken in order to continue to fund public education in line with the Madison community values. Learn more about responsible budgeting process in our Budget Book published in June each year.

Why are so many school districts going to referendum?

Wisconsin school districts live in an environment that is less and less supportive of public education. We are operating under a revenue limit formula designed by state government which sets a limit on the amount of state aid and local taxes a school district may receive each year to operate the schools. Over the past several years, the revenue limit has become increasingly restrictive.

With  annual revenue growth that does not keep up with the cost of living, school districts must turn to cuts in personnel, programs and services to students, using the “tools of Act 10” to balance the annual budget. Looking ahead toward the next state budget, we can reasonably predict a continuing pattern of minimal revenue growth resulting in additional school district budget cuts.

How are the 2020 referenda different than the April 2015 facility referendum?

In April 2015, MMSD taxpayers supported a $41M School Bond referendum by an approximately 80% majority vote. The referendum was aimed at addressing some long-deferred maintenance needs across several elementary and middle schools along with some expansion at MMSD's most crowded elementary schools. An April 2015 Referendum Final Project Summary provides information on completed projects. The 2015 referendum was solely about construction at elementary and middle schools. The potential 2020 facility referenda could include one question about facilities (renovation at the high schools, relocating Capital High East and Capital High West into one facility, and building a new elementary school in the Rimrock area) and one question about operational expenses within the district.

How are the 2020 referenda different than the November 2016 referendum?

In November 2016, MMSD taxpayers supported an $26M recurring operating referendum with a 74% majority vote. The referendum focused solely on the regular annual operating budget of the district. MMSD correctly predicted that revenue allowed by the state (drawn from State Equalization Aid and local property taxes) would grow by less than 1% over the coming years, and gave taxpayers the opportunity to vote on whether or not to raise the district's revenue limit authority above the State-defined limit for the next four years. The 2020 referenda will include one question about renovation, primarily at the high schools and an addition of one elementary school, and one question about raising the district's revenue limit authority permanently, via a recurring operating revenue question, above the State-defined limit, allowing MMSD to cover operational expenses within the district.

How were the April 2015 referendum funds spent and accounted for?

The Board of Education received regular updates on the progress of maintenance projects funded through the April 2015 referendum and the public received regular updates via a referendum website and on social media. An April 2015 Referendum Final Project Summary provides information on completed projects.

How were the November 2016 referendum funds spent and accounted for?

The 2016 operating referendum was used to help keep our 50 schools operating through a phase of unstable and unpredictable budgets from the State. The referendum allowed MMSD to continue services and supports without having to cut large numbers of staff, increase class sizes, and make deeper and more disruptive cuts in coming years.  In addition, the Board made a number of investments into strategic equity projects aligned to our Strategic Framework goals.

What will be the total impact for taxpayers for the operating and facilities referenda?

For both the operating and facilities referenda together, the average annual tax impact would be about $400 for the average home (current average home value is about $294,000) in Madison. When the Board makes final decisions about what does go onto the ballot, we will actualize all these numbers and share them with the public.

I still have questions. How can I learn more?

You are welcome to send your questions or feedback by emailing referendum@madison.k12.wi.us.