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Study: School property taxes grow less than previous year despite pandemic, recession

Study: School property taxes grow less than previous year despite pandemic, recession

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Residents in school districts across the state will likely see an increase in their property taxes on their upcoming tax bills, but the increase probably will be considerably lower than last year despite a recession spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wisconsinites statewide will see an average increase of 3.3% in property taxes toward K-12 schools on their December bill, which is less than the average increase of 4.5% in the previous year, according to a study released Thursday by the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

The increase, though slimmer than 2019, is larger than most in recent years and brings property tax revenue to nearly $5.4 billion for Wisconsin public schools. The Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan research organization, attributed the increase in tax revenue to the high rate of passage for referendums across the state as well as higher state revenue limits for schools.

“Given the effects of the pandemic, these increases will come at an especially bad time for some property owners,” said Jason Stein, Wisconsin Policy Forum research director. “On the other hand they will also help sustain critical services like education and public health at a time when they are particularly needed.”

The increase, one of the largest in the past decade, could ensure a steady flow of resources to local governments and school districts, despite the recession.

Aside from approved school district referendums across the state, changes in state-imposed school revenue limits and state aid also affected the property tax increase.

The state budget increased the per-pupil revenue limit by $175 per pupil last year and $179 per pupil this year after four years of static revenue limits. The 2020-21 increase amounted to an increase in revenue of roughly $150 million across Wisconsin.

The average statewide per pupil revenue limit was just over $11,450 for the 2020-21 school year, compared with $9,809 in 2011-12. In the Madison School District, the per pupil revenue limit was just over $13,322 for the 2020-21 school year, compared with $11,132 in 2011-12.

This year, the state provided an additional $163.5 million in general school aid, an increase of 3.4% over the previous year, which was the largest increase in general aid since 2005, according to the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

But not all school districts will see an increase in either general school aid or per pupil revenue limit, due to a state formula that determines the finances of each district.

The Madison School District was one of two to adopt the largest increases in property tax raw dollars, due to successful referendums. The Milwaukee School District accounted for the largest increase of $42.5 million in property tax dollars to Madison’s $19.9 million. If the levies of those two districts combined were removed from the statewide total, the increase in property tax would be 2.3%, or one percentage point lower, according to the study.

One-third of the state’s 446 school districts had a decrease in their tax levies, including New Berlin, where it was $3.4 million lower; De Pere, $3.2 million lower; Wauwatosa, $2.5 million lower; Eau Claire, $2.2 million lower; and La Crosse, $2 million lower.

Public K-12 schools, technical colleges and counties account for two out of every three dollars in property tax revenue, according to the study.

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