School vouchers put pressure on PW-S tax levy

State choice program comes at an increasing cost to local taxpayers but spike in aid helps keep bills in check
By 
BILL SCHANEN IV
Ozaukee Press staff

During a school year in which the Port Washington-Saukville School District’s referendum debt payment is increasing and the state’s school choice program is putting increased pressure on the tax levy, school tax bills are predicted to do the unexpected — remain relatively flat.

The School Board on Monday approved a 2018-19 tax levy that despite the district’s referendum debt obligation and state vouchers that result in taxpayers covering the cost of private school tuition for some students will increase by only $13,253, or .08%, to $16.6 million.

That’s due in large part to a $995,069 increase in state aid — a high point in what has been a roller coaster ride. Four years ago, the district’s state aid was cut by more than $1 million. That was followed by an increase of nearly $900,000, then a reduction of $683,000 last school year.

Director of Business Services Jim Froemming noted that the aid increases coincide with the second years of the state’s biennial budgets and may be influenced by other factors.

“They keep flipping this puppy around,” he told the School Board. “It’s the second year of the biennial budget and oh, it’s also an election year.” 

While the aid increase is good news for the district, there is mounting pressure on the tax levy.

For the first time, the state’s school choice program has become a significant factor for the district, one that will cost local taxpayers $330,590 this school year.

Under the state program, families who qualify based on income may use vouchers to send their children to private schools. The state aid received by the public school districts where those children live is reduced by the value of those vouchers, but districts are allowed to recoup that loss by increasing their property tax levies.

“I don’t know if people realize that vouchers are completely paid for by taxpayers,” Froemming said. 

Last year, the district’s aid was reduced by $47,000 because of vouchers. With the expansion of the school choice program, that amount increased to $330,590 this year.

Another major influence on the district tax levy is its $49.4 million referendum debt. The district’s debt payment will increase by $669,449 to $3.2 million this school year, which accounts for $1.89 of the district’s tax rate of $9.71 per $1,000 of property value.

Administrators noted that the referendum impact on this year’s tax rate is exactly what was reflected in a debt service plan designed to take advantage of favorable interest rates with staggered borrowings and higher payments earlier in the plan.

Approved by voters in 2015, the referendum financed a $3.8 million addition and renovations at Dunwiddie Elementary School and the ongoing $45.6 million Port Washington High School project.

While this year’s tax levy will tick up, the tax rate will decrease significantly, dropping by 65 cents per $1,000 of property value to $9.72 due primarily to a 6.75% increase in school district property values. 

Theoretically, that means the school property tax bill for the average homeowner will increase by $1.47. The impact on actual tax bills, however, will depend on how property values changed within individual communities. For instance, in the City of Port Washington, where property values rose by 8%, school tax bills are expected to increase by about $20. But in the portions of the village and town of Saukville that are in the district, school tax bills are projected to decrease because property values increased significantly less.

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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