Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Not What You Ask, But How You Ask It

At least two referendums to raise public school revenue failed yesterday. One was in the Mequon-Thiensville School District just outside of Milwaukee and the other was in the Howard-Suamico School District near Green Bay.

Approximately 21% of the voting population voted against the Mequon-Thiensville referendum while about 16% voted for it. The goal of the referendum was to fill in a $6.5 million budget shortfall over the next three years and provide $1 million for technology updates and maintenance repairs. According to the district’s superintendent, the failed referendum will result in the firing of 11 custodians and 15 teachers.

The Mequon-Thiensville School District is among the best in the state (in large part because of money), and it will probably make it through this failed referendum without too much noticeable trouble—despite the firings, the resulting increase in maintenance issues and class sizes, and the lack of technology updates. Over time, however, if school revenues continue to remain stagnate or only increase at a snail’s pace, the district may not be able to afford to reject a funding referendum and maintain its high-stature in the future.

Such is the dire situation in the Howard-Suamico School District. The failed referendum yesterday is the third in the district since November 2004. The referendum was turned down this time by less than 100 votes—2,159 to 2,065. According to district officials, another referendum is not an option—it’s a must. The problem in Howard-Suamico is that the elementary school population is increasing faster than there is room in the elementary schools. The goal of the referendum was to build a new elementary school in Suamico and make expansions to two existing district elementary schools.

The interesting thing about referendums is how they’re phrased. I wouldn’t doubt if the Howard-Suamico referendum was phrased something like, “Do you want there to be enough room at the elementary schools for all of the elementary-age students in the district?” they might have been enough “yes” votes to make up the 95 needed for the referendum to pass. Now, I know, that language is skewed, but my point is that funding referendums are often phrased in such a way that emphasizes the amount of aggregate money requested while downplaying the effects of that money not being allocated.

Here is the actual wording of the Howard-Suamico referendum:

“BE IT RESOLVED by the School Board of the Howard-Suamico School District, Brown County, Wisconsin, (the ‘District’) that there shall be issued, pursuant to Chapter 67, Wisconsin Statutes, General Obligation Bonds in an amount not to exceed $17,800,000 (the ‘Bonds’) for the purposes of paying the cost of constructing, equipping and furnishing a new elementary school facility; constructing additions to, renovating, remodeling and upgrading, and acquiring furnishings and equipment for existing District facilities; site preparation and improvements at all construction sites; and the payment of related architectural and engineering fees and the cost of issuing the Bonds (the ‘Project’).

Shall the foregoing resolution of the School Board of the Howard-Suamico School District be approved?”

While the referendum question does note how the requested funds would be used, there is no indication of the importance of those funds or what would happen if they weren’t approved.

What does stick out very clearly, however, is that the district is asking for $17.8 million dollars from the residents of the district.

My point: Referendums that are requesting money tend to be skewed towards failure because it is impossible to convey the potentially damaging effects of not passing the referendum while the financial impact is inherent in the question.

Moreover, that financial impact always sounds high to an individual voter because it’s the aggregate figure. Divided amongst all of the residents of the district, the amount is much less intimidating. In fact, according to Howard-Suamico district officials, the $17.8 million would only add $78 per year in property taxes for a $200,000 home—but due to a January 2006 Board of Education resolution, the district would actually be able to absorb the entire $17.8 million into the existing tax rate, causing no additional money to be charged to resident’s property tax bill due to the referendum. In other words, the referendum wouldn’t raise property taxes in the district at all.

Where was that info in the referendum question? Granted, those in favor of passing the referendum can certainly work to educate the voters prior to the election day about how the district—due to a Board of Education resolution—can absorb the $17.8 million into the existing property tax rate. But those opposed to the referendum also have that ability to pound into minds of voters the fact that the referendum will cost $17.8 million.

To the average voter who doesn’t have the time or energy to pay close attention to governmental budgetary matters, what do you think sounds more convincing?

UPDATE: I made a couple changes to language at 3:30pm. The substance is the same.

2 Comments:

Blogger Sven said...

That's precisely what happened in Colorado with TABOR, Seth. The ballot wording was critical. Less extreme tax measures failed six times previously.

I researched the issue for months and interviewed TABOR's author a half-dozen times before the election, and the implications still weren't clear to me (or for that matter to the author; I'm convinced he designed it as a purposely vague monkey wrench).

Needless to say, I was astounded when the ballot measure was released. It was a masterpiece of misdirection and oversimplification (I can't find it online; I'll try to dig it out of my files).

Digging into how the wording is negotiated would make a great newspaper story, doncha think?

February 22, 2006  
Blogger Seth Zlotocha said...

I agree it would be a great newspaper story. Wonder if we'll get one?

I was also thinking about the funding referendums that would be required if the Bride of TABOR was passed in Wisconsin. Conservatives are touting the referendum as the ultra-democratic way to go above the revenue restrictions of the amendment. But what they don't talk about are the problems with funding referendums. One of those problems is that the wording is inevitably going to be skewed against the referendum's passage.

Let me know if you're able to find the wording of the Colorado amendment referendum. I definitely agree the wording of the amendment referendum here in Wisconsin is key.

But, thankfully, it looks like the amendment might not even make it that far.

February 22, 2006  

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