School Districts

The property tax is the largest source of tax revenue in Wisconsin, and school districts, towns, villages, and cities receive nearly all of the revenue from the property tax in Wisconsin.  On the state level, only the Vocational-Technical education system receives significant property tax revenue.  The bulk of property tax revenue goes to fund K-12 school districts.

This is a very important concept for reporters in Wisconsin to understand, because school taxes and school funding and school expenditures always generate huge public interest.  The largest amount of a typical property tax bill goes to the local school district, so people want to know how the schools are spending their property tax dollars.

For the typical homeowner, a municipal assessor regularly sets a dollar value on the home and land.  Often, this value is closely related to the “appraised” value of the home, which is the amount of money a professional property appraiser estimates the home and land to be worth.  Market forces obviously come into play here, and most homeowners are acutely aware of how much their home is worth on today’s market.  Hence, they’re keenly interested in how much the assessor says their home is worth, because that’s the basis for the property tax they pay.

It is worth noting that there is an appeal process outlined in state law that allows individual property owners 30 days, beginning the second Monday of May each year, to challenge the assessment on their property.  Once assessments are finalized and property tax bills are sent out in December, property tax payers have the option of paying their property taxes in one lump sum in December or by January 31st, or in two equal payments, one due January 31st and the second on July 31st.

In Wisconsin, all units of government that levy a property tax must certify their next year’s property tax levy by October or November every year.  Tax rolls are then prepared by the municipalities and counties, and property tax bills are mailed out to individual property owners in December.  The property tax bill that is mailed out is a comprehensive one, that includes the legal property description, the property assessment, a figure that represents the total tax owed, AND a breakdown of that total by taxing jurisdiction (municipal, state, educational).

There is NO appeal from a property tax levied; the appeal rights individual property owners can exercise are available only in May each year after property  assessments are made earlier in the year.  The University of Wisconsin Extension Local Government Center has an excellent PDF fact sheet on the property tax/levy process which is easily understood.

So that you can have a better understanding of the governmental units which levy property taxes and their relative share of an individual’s property tax, the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance has created a piece to help you understand the property tax timeline in Wisconsin.

The next part of the equation is how the school district spends the money it generates from taxes.  Here are three helpful websites to get you started on learning about school taxes:

The first is the Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance website. This is an independent, private association which is the state’s biggest and best-known tax watchdog.  At this site they have easy navigation which will quickly lead you to information about how much money every school district in the state takes in, and how the money is spent.

The second is the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, which has a very detailed website with a rich array of details about schools and expenditures.  The site has quick links to staff members who can help you understand the data and surveys presented on the site.  The site also has a quick tutorial on collective bargaining, which is how most school districts deal with the employment contracts for members of the local teachers’ association.

The third site is maintained by the largest teachers’ union in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, which has a very easily-accessed section which explains “QEO”, the Qualified Economic Offer, which is a huge factor in contract talks between the local teachers’ association and the local school district administration.  The WEA site also has their point of view on school funding issues, teacher licensing requirements and issues, virtual schools, and a variety of other school and teacher related topics.