‘I feel we were misled’: The aftermath of a school referendum in Monroe

MONROE, Wis. — When the Monroe School District got its $88 million referendum passed to replace its high school building, 54% of the district’s voters gave it the nod — after weeks of advertisements that readers frequently interpreted as a tax increase of $13 per $100,000 in home value.

In a referendum Q & A the district posted to its website, it appeared clear: “The expected increase with a passed referendum would be closer to $13 on a $100,000 home and $26 on a $200,000 home,” it read.

Similarly, postcards and other marketing materials circulated by a group (whose connection–if any–to the district is unclear) spread a similar message with a simple graphic: if your home value was $200,000, your net tax increase would be $26.

So when many homeowners in the district opened their property tax bills several weeks later expecting roughly a $26 or $39 increase for the referendum, they were taken back.

“When I looked at the school expecting a $39 increase, my property taxes were affected by $677 total, just for that school referendum,” Green County resident Dale Howarth said.

Howarth has been a softball coach in the park and school district for twenty years. His wife’s four children are in the district, and he’s supportive of its schools. But the referendum — on which he had voted no — left him feeling like his entire community had been misinformed.

“There are a lot of people upset about it,” Howarth said. “I feel we were misled.”

The school district in a statement on its website acknowledged the unexpected increase. In brief: they explained the referendum rate of $.13/$1000 (or $13/$100,000) was based on 2021 home values. Nearly all homes had increased in value this year, however; all of that increase was then taxed at the full mill rate of $9.33/$1000, or $933/$100,000.

So, a home valued at $200,000 in 2021 and then its fair market value raised to $240,000 in 2022 would have a school referendum tax rate of $26 for the first $200,000 — and $373.20 for the extra $40,000.

Update: After this story aired, the Monroe School District apologized to voters. Read about that here.

The issue for people like Howard and others in the district like Larry Koschkee, however, is that they feel they weren’t told about how the home value increase would impact the referendum.

“There was a clear misrepresentation,” Koschkee said. Their local newspaper had reported about the increases in home values as early as October, so residents felt the school district should have known enough to inform voters about how the $13/$100,000 would actually apply.

The school district said in a statement provided after this story aired that they hadn’t been aware of how increased property valuations would impact the referendum, and apologized to voters in a two-page letter explaining what had happened.

In email exchanges with News 3 Now, the Department of Public Instruction said the state had little authority in an issue like this if voters felt misled by advertising. Specifically, schools typically work with their own attorneys on the wording for referendums — and the wording itself, in this case, was not the concern: it was how voters believed the referendum was advertised to them.

State law includes penalties for schools that would exceed their state-mandated levy limits, but otherwise, a DPI spokesperson was not aware of any other limitations the state would place on them, apart from the legislation that lays out how school referendums should operate.

As far as Koschkee is concerned, it’s now “water under the dam.”

But in online social media posts, messages, texts, and phone calls, the concerns continue.

“Someone should have stepped forward and corrected it before the referendum.”