G-E-T’s ‘golden ticket’ referendum was never permanent, records show

Despite mixed messages, rumors and confusion over the last decade, the Gale-Ettrick-Trempealeau School District does not have access to permanent operating dollars as part of the 2010 referendum and has not had the option to increase taxes for operating help since 2015-16.

A spokesperson with the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) confirmed to the Times last week that G-E-T has not had the option to levy $800,000 in tax dollars for operational purposes since the 2015-16 school year. The 2010 operational referendum that was passed was only for five years as originally intended, DPI records and district funding numbers show.

“There’s still the misconception that G-E-T, you have $800,000 every year in a savings account that you can dip into anytime you want,” G-E-T business manager Cary Brommerich told the district school board last Monday. “That’s not what was approved. That’s not what the referendum was, and that pool never existed.”

The district has not had access to operational referendum money since 2016 and has used budget cuts and an underlevy to balance the budget. An operational referendum is likely coming in the next two years because that under-levy ability has dried up, according to school district leaders.

An underlevy is the term used to describe a district making cuts to spending in order to tax residents less than its total allowable amount. If a district can tax $10 million, for example, the district would cut programs or costs elsewhere to only tax $9 million instead of borrowing money for the new costs.

With inflation and unknowns in the 2023-25 state biennium budget, G-E-T may not be able to continue using an underlevy to keep the mill rate low in the future, Brommerich told the Times.

Referendum history

In 2006, G-E-T went to the public asking for a recurring referendum, but the DPI told the district they would likely be better suited with a five-year, nonrecurring ask. The district agreed and passed the referendum.

Then in 2010, the district used the same wording as 2006, which included the word ‘recurring’, meaning the money is available every year. The district asked the DPI for an appeal again to make it nonrecurring, but the DPI ruled then that the error was on the district for not having the right words.

Some believed then that the referendum would be available forever, meaning the district could collect an additional $800,000 in taxes any year in the future if they needed the money for daily operations.

In the referendum question, though, there was an end date of the 2015-16 school year listed, which overrules the word recurring. Most districts across Wisconsin had nonrecurring referendums in 2010, and there were question marks over how a recurring referendum worked at the time across Wisconsin, Brommerich told the board.

Beginning with the 2016-17 school year, DPI documents show that G-E-T lost its ability to levy the additional $800,000, meaning the referendum had expired. 

The district did not tax the full additional $800,000 it was allowed each year from 2011-2016. This created an underlevy to help the district control its mill rate, Brommerich said, adding that cuts and this underlevy have allowed the district to operate without going to referendum.

The district decreased its day to day spending and used the 2010 referendum to create a “cushion,” District Administrator Michele Butler said Monday, only taking out enough money to cover their spending.

“We told the taxpayers, we need to get money to pay our bills. We know we have additional authority, but we’re not using it,” Brommerich told the Times, adding that it takes about $18 million to run the district split between state aid and property taxes.

If the district had levied the full $800,000 per year from 2011-16, the district would “minimally” have already asked for a new referendum in 2016 and probably again in 2021, Brommerich said.

DPI confusion

Part of the reason for the rumors of a ‘golden ticket’ has been mixed messaging from both past district administrators and the DPI themselves, board members said on Monday.

Paul Kinzer said the DPI had used the word ‘perpetuity’, meaning no end date, when discussing the referendum with the board. The DPI visited the board in 2010 to say they had the money forever, according to board discussions.

“Our confusion was in the long ago times, the DPI themselves told us ... that this is forever. That’s what we were told, and that’s where so much of the confusion until very recently even for all of us too. … stemmed from,” he said.

Added questions came from G-E-T using the word ‘recurring’ in the ask during a time that recurring referendums were rare in the state. But the end date being in the question was key. 

More districts in Wisconsin are using recurring referendums now with the understanding that they don’t have to use the money if they don’t need it.

Think of the referendum money as a car loan with a set end date. The district had this extra money until 2015-16, at which time they no longer had access to the money. A true recurring referendum with no listed end date would act more like a credit card where the money could be stacked on forever.

When Brommerich started with the district, he had the same interpretation that the district had access to a recurring referendum. Then he went to the DPI and started looking at the books with Butler, and the numbers showed that the referendum ended.

“For whatever reason we were told it goes on forever, but it didn’t,” Brommerich said Monday, later adding: “They (DPI) saw recurring. They didn’t look at the entire thing, they just saw you have a recurring referendum. They didn’t look at the entire thing to say there’s an end date in there.”

Past administrators have been told by others in public education that they have a ‘golden ticket’, but that was never the case, documents show. Board member Gene Hogden asked past administrative staff to look into the issue, but this is the first time the board has received an all encompassing explanation, he said.

“We were taken to task by many people about this, and in hindsight now we actually did a heck of a deal for the district by doing what we did,” Hogden said. “We did a great thing for the school district. We shouldn’t be chastised for what happened.”


Special Sections

Comment Here