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After two failed referendums, Tomahawk School District takes different approach to convincing voters

School District of Tomahawk Facebook

Wisconsin’s school funding formula doesn’t work for rural schools.

It’s something districts in the Northwoods have said over and over.

Until it changes, many rely on voters passing operational referendums just to keep up with day-to-day costs for building maintenance, staff salaries, and program costs.

For the third time in less than three years, the Tomahawk School District is asking voters to approve an operational referendum.

In November 2020, it failed by 51 votes.

In April of 2021, it failed by fewer than 35 votes.

Jen Black believes the importance of the schools got lost in the messaging to the Tomahawk community when it came to last two elections with the referendum on the ballot.

“It was really hard for me as a person who has two students in the school district, has a husband who serves as a paramedic, and for myself who has served as a healthcare provider in the area for almost 16 years. To not have people understand that when you don’t invest in your school system that it has a negative impact on the community was really hard for me,” said Black.

Black is part of Tomahawk School District’s new community-focused approach when it comes to gaining support for the district.

She’s chair of Champions of Tomahawk School District, a new group that works to educate people in the district about what’s happening with the schools.

Black says she took on the role under the condition that she could leave politics behind and just focus on the needs of the students and schools.

After talking with people who previously voted against the referendum, she found people either had misinformation, were unhappy with the district’s COVID policies, or thought the referendum wasn’t need because the school got some coronavirus relief funds.

“The school really has been, overall, very savvy with their budget. They’ve cut to the point where they can’t cut any longer. I think when you talk to people about that, they’re really understanding that the school has done everything they can,” said Black. “Overall we’re seeing a shift. We’re trying to make this that it isn’t about politics anymore. This isn’t about personal, emotional beliefs. This is about what our school needs.”

The Tomahawk School District is once again asking voters to approve a $3.25 million non-recurring referendum that will last for the next three school years.

For taxpayers, that’s $149 per every $100,000 of assessed property value.

Or as Black likes to think of it, a little more than $12 a month.

“We’re in a position where we can really move forward. Understand that the district really is in a position that without a successful referendum, we’re in a position we’re going to have to lose more teachers, more programs, more courses,” said Black.

The referendum question will appear on the April 5th ballot.

Tomahawk is far from the only school to have a referendum on the spring election ballot.

Other school referendums on the April 5 ballot

More than 80 districts in Wisconsin will have a referendum on the April 5th ballot, about half of them are for operational costs.

The Elcho School District is in a similar position to Tomahawk. It’s also tried and failed to pass two operational referendums in the last three years.

It’s now asking voters to approve $1 million per year, for three-years non-recurring operational referendum.

Merrill Area Public Schoolsand Goodman-Armstrong Creek School District both have referendums expiring at the end of this school year.

The new referendums would continue that same taxy-levy property owners are currently paying.

The Wausau School District also has a referendum. It’s for more than $119 million to cover the costs of facility updates.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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