Another Record Year for Referendums: Guidance for Administrators

By Malina Piontek, AWSA’s Retained Legal Counsel

This spring, 92 school district referendums are on the upcoming April 2, 2024, ballot. An additional ten referendums for seven school districts were voted for on the February 2024 ballot, making 2023-2024 another record school year for school district referendums. The school districts undertaking a referendum will be educating their community about their requests and how they will impact their district. As school leaders, your staff and community members no doubt value your opinion on whether or not your school district’s referendum should be passed, and may seek information from you regarding the referendum. However, school leaders and school board members alike need to make sure they are following election law as they communicate about the school district’s upcoming referendum. This article is designed to help you understand the types of referendums that are permitted under Wisconsin law, and your role in sharing referendum information with your community.

Background on Referendums.

Under the current school funding structure with revenue limits and funds based on student enrollment, school districts find themselves with increasing regularity placing ballot questions before voters as the only way to fund everything from new construction to operational costs, such as employee compensation. School districts can ask voters to pass two types of referendums, operational and capital referendums. 

Operational referendums allow school districts to exceed their state-imposed revenue limits, which cap what districts can collect in revenue through general aid and property taxes. These referendums can be nonrecurring, meaning the funding lasts for a specified period of time, or recurring, meaning the funding lasts for an unlimited amount of time. Capital referendums allow school districts to borrow money for construction, renovation or other building projects. Of the upcoming April 2 referendums, 42 of those will ask for temporary, or non-recurring, authority to increase the school district’s revenue limit, while 19 will ask for permanent, or recurring, authority to increase the school district’s revenue limit. In addition, there will be 30 borrowing referendums on the April ballot across the state. Borrowing referendums ask voters for approval to issue bonds for major construction, remodeling or maintenance projects for school facilities.

Public school districts have the responsibility to provide information to the public about any bond or borrowing referendums.  All school district materials must be strictly informational. A school board may make reasonable expenditures for the purpose of giving voters relevant facts to aid them in reaching an informed judgment when voting upon the question. Appropriate expenditures may include costs of brochures, newspaper advertisements, newsletters, or recordings.

School district resources, such as funding, staff time, technology, district/school sponsored publications, internet pages or videos, cannot be used to advocate for a specific position regarding any referendum. Words of advocacy such as “vote for,” “elect,” “support,” “cast your ballot for,” “vote against,” “defeat,” and “reject” cannot be used in school district official communication related to the referendum issue.

What You CAN Do.

Off duty. When school staff are off duty, they can advocate for school referendums. School administrators do not surrender their rights as citizens because they are employed by the school district. However, it is important to keep in mind that, as a school leader, you may be viewed in your capacity as principal, director, etc, 24/7. Keep off-duty conversations about the referendum framed around your opinion as a citizen, not as the high school principal, for example.

On duty. During work hours or other times in which they are paid  by the district, administrators can provide neutral, factual information and educate the public about the referendum. This includes describing school or department needs or what is lacking at the school or department. It is vitally important that referendum education materials that you create are neutral. With that being said, it is okay to provide factual information that describes, for example, cuts the district or school will have to make due to budget deficits if the referendum is not passed.

What You CAN’T Do.

School district administrators and staff can’t work on referendum campaigns during work hours. Administrators may not assign employees the task of working on the generation or distribution of any advocacy material.  

No district funds or district resources can be expended for referendum advocacy, such as activities that expressly encourage a yes or no vote. School district employees can’t use school district money or resources to campaign or advocate for or against the referendum - think copy machines, envelopes, stamps, computers, networks, or email.

You can’t grant use of your school building to an advocacy group based on their status as a Vote Yes or Vote No group. The use of school buildings should be requested through the standard building permit or facility use process.

Parent Organizations.

A note on parent organizations is worthy of attention. A Parent Organization is separate and distinct from a school district, and therefore, they do not fall within the constrictions outlined in this article. Such an organization may decide to advocate in favor of a referendum and may provide the community with advocacy information, including making statements such as “Vote yes to building a new theater” or “Vote yes to give our staff the raises they deserve.”

This article was written by Attorney Malina Piontek, AWSA’s Level I Legal Services Provider, and is designed to provide you with general authoritative information and with commentary as a service to AWSA members. Please consult with your district’s legal counsel relevant to your school’s specific situation. You may direct your Level I call-in questions to Malina at 608-497-3037. You may email her at [email protected].