Empower Wisconsin | March 19, 2020
By M.D. Kittle
MADISON — Classes are canceled in the Racine Unified School District (RUSD), as they are for all of Wisconsin’s schools. The novel coronavirus pandemic has shut down just about everything — even groups of 10 or more people (per Gov. Tony Evers’ orders).
While businesses and workers all over worry about what the coronavirus will do to their health, their personal fortunes and the broader economy, educrats continue to push the Racine Unified’s whopping $1 billion-plus referendum.
As of Wednesday afternoon, the district was moving full speed ahead with its April 7 ballot question asking taxpayers to decide whether to allow RUSD the option to exceed its revenue limit by more than $1 billion over the next 30 years.
Of course, district staff like to call it a $598 million referendum, as if debt service isn’t really an expense that would have to be borne by taxpayers.
District officials also quickly point out the $1 billion total (with debt service) would be the maximum levy. They insist they’d like to levy less to hold the tax rate “flat.”
There are two fallacies built into their assertion:
1. When was the last time a government, local or otherwise, given the authority to collect more tax money collected less?
2. As the Racine Journal Times noted in a recent editorial, RUSD cannot promise to keep the tax rate flat.
“Racine Unified School District’s referendum slogan is: ‘Every student. Every school. Flat tax rate.’ While the slogan is catchy, it’s not accurate,” the editorial opens.
Catch the wording, it’s very important. Unified, the newspaper editorial board notes, is not promising they will not raise taxes if the $1 billion, 30-year referendum passes.
“Instead, they are only saying they will keep the portion of the mill rate related to the referendum at $2.31 for the 30-year duration. That is significantly different than saying taxes will not go up,” the editorial states.
A lot can happen over 30 years. There are no guarantees that funding levels will remain the same, a fact that doesn’t fit into the school district’s pithy slogan.
“The next board can do whatever they want. I don’t see how you can stand there and tell us that you have a tax-control policy that can have a flat tax for 30 years. It’s impossible. You can’t handcuff the next board,” Caledonia Village Trustee Tom Weatherston said.
Now, take a look at who is “wholeheartedly endorsing” this massive referendum. Liberal Racine Mayor Cory Mason, a former member of the state Assembly who rarely met a tax or taxpayer-funded spending plan he didn’t like, is all on board the billion-dollar train.
Mason told the Journal Times he wants Racine to be a place of choice for workers. Quality schools are a big part of that, the mayor said. No doubt. And there is no question that many Racine school buildings are old. But a $1 billion tax ask over 30 years? That’s a clear disincentive for a lot of property owners — current and would-be residents.
Guess who else is on board? Racine Educators United, the local teachers union. That should tell you something.
State Rep. Greta Neubauer (D-Racine), a vocal supporter of the economically crippling Green New Deal proposal, also is a proponent of the school spending plan.
The ballot question has plenty of opponents, too. The list includes the Mount Pleasant Village Board. Village President Dave DeGroot told the Racine newspaper that the consensus was opposition to the referendum.
“It’s really hard for us to get behind an all-inclusive, $1 billion referendum when it really does nothing to improve the walkability for Mount Pleasant residents,” he said.
“If it fails, we asked, ‘What’s the Plan B?’ and they don’t have one.”
The bigger question is, what are Racine Unified property taxpayers ultimately paying for? Many schools in the district are earning a ‘D’ at best. For the third year in a row, RUSD received a grade of “meets few expectations,” according to the most recent school district report cards issued by the state Department of Public Instruction.
Will a billion dollars worth of new buildings dramatically change those feeble academic results?