JEFFERSON — The potential dissolution of the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District has neighboring districts scrambling to determine how any reapportionment would affect them should it be granted by the state appeals board.
Among them is the School District of Jefferson, whose board of education discussed the issue when it met Monday night.
Last spring, the Palmyra-Eagle district held an operational referendum, publicizing the fact that if it did not pass, the school board would vote on whether to dissolve the district overall.
That measure failed at the ballot box by a margin of 61 percent to 39 percent, as voters rejected the four-year, $11.5 million operational referendum district officials said was needed to keep the district financially viable.
In the aftermath of that vote, the Palmyra school board did vote July 1 to recommend dissolution.
Dissolution is an entirely different process than the annexation of property from one school district to another or the cooperative consolidation of two districts.
Now, the fate of some 800 students, not to mention staff and families, hangs in the balance. Information from the previous school year lists Palmyra-Eagle’s total enrollment at 802 students, but the official enrollment numbers for this year, recorded on Sept. 20, have not been released by the state yet. Since last year, numerous families already have left the district via open enrollment.
The school board itself does not have the ability to dissolve the district. That decision is determined at the state level, via a yet-to-be-appointed School District Boundary Appeals Board (SDBAB).
The board, consisting of seven members, is supposed to contain representation from all over the state, with representation from small, medium and large districts and no more than one member from each of the state’s 12 CESA (Cooperative Educational Service Agency) regions. Also serving on the board would be State Superintendent of Schools Carolyn Stanford Taylor or her designee.
That panel has the responsibility to determine whether to uphold the Palmyra-Eagle school board’s recommendation to dissolve the district, or whether to deny it and force the district to continue operation as is.
Several factors must be taken into account in making this decision, including whether the neighboring districts have the ability to absorb the former Palmyra-Eagle students, the impact on bus transportation times, the impact on extracurriculars and co-curricular activities in the affected districts, and the impact on those living within the current school district.
Had the Palmyra-Eagle board held an advisory referendum to ask voters whether they approved the dissolution of the district, that vote would have been one more factor in the state panel’s decision. However, such a step was not taken at the time.
However, a petition spearheaded by district resident Tara Leroy garnered more than the 403 signatures — 10 percent of the district voters — needed to place an advisory referendum on the ballot.
It has been set for the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 5, and pollworkers reportedly have been notified.
No matter the advisory referendum’s outcome, it still only would be one more factor for the School District Boundary Appeals Board to consider.
This decision is supposed to be made by Jan. 15, 2020.
If the SDBAB decides not to dissolve the Palmyra-Eagle district, it would be up to Palmyra-Eagle officials to determine how to continue with the funds they have.
If the SDBAB decides to dissolve the Palmyra-Eagle district, then a regional board would be formed to determine how the district would be divided. Making up that board would be representatives of the seven districts that border Palmyra-Eagle.
In that case, the apportionment board would have several areas to address.
First, there’s the territory itself. The seven districts that border Palmyra-Eagle — Whitewater, Fort Atkinson, Jefferson, Mukwonago, Oconomowoc, Kettle Moraine and East Troy — all would have a role in splitting up that territory, in some fashion determined to be equitable and in the best interests of the children residing there.
Second, there’s Palmyra-Eagle’s debt, which is significant. The school district’s financial situation was cited as the main driver of the school board’s decision to recommend dissolution.
The district was spending more money than it was taking in and was restricted by state statute from taxing district residents more without referendum approval.
Third, there are the assets that the Palmyra-Eagle district holds, including its elementary schools in Eagle and Palmyra and its middle/high school in Palmyra.
It is not clear how these assets would be split were dissolution approved. Would all of the assets be split evenly and held in trust until they could be sold, or would the district which ends up containing those properties own them?
Fourth, there’s the issue of Palmyra-Eagle school staff, some, if not all, of whom could be absorbed by the districts taking on the former Palmyra students.
Discussing the potential impacts of a Palmyra dissolution at the Jefferson board of education meeting Monday night, Jefferson Superintendent Mark Rollefson said that the surrounding districts would see both positives and negatives if the Palmyra-Eagle dissolution occurs.
One thing is sure: the transition process would require a lot of effort from all sides.
“There are a lot of decisions that would have to be made,” Rollefson said.
The districts that would be affected by the potential dissolution have already met on a few occasions, and key players have also met with state legislators to talk about how this would work and the problems they foresee if the dissolution proceeds.
Rollefson said he was told that the last district to dissolve — located in Northern Wisconsin — did so back in the late 1980s.
That was prior to the establishment of many rules and regulations that guide public school districts in Wisconsin today. It also was before school districts were held to revenue limits.
In addition, it was before the establishment of open enrollment that allows students from any public school district to open-enroll in another public school district providing their family provides the transportation.
The last dissolution occurred prior to the establishment of the hold-harmless clause and current financial measures regarding declining enrollment districts, and before the new referendum rules which now restrict how often and on which dates school districts can go to referendum.
Rollefson noted that two Wisconsin school districts have requested dissolution since the one in the 1980s, but in those cases, the appeals board declined to uphold their requests.
“The situation is pretty unique, and a dissolution would be precedent-setting,” Rollefson said. “School districts are operating under a whole new set of rules now than the last time a dissolution occurred.”
However, he said, due to increased restrictions on school district finances and the tight financial straits many districts find themselves in, he foresees this circumstance becoming much more common throughout the state in the coming years.
“It’s just sad this has to occur, due to the state of education and what education funding looks like right now,” said Jefferson school board member Terri Wenkman,
Because the last time a dissolution occurred was back in the 1980s, the way the state statute is written doesn’t really fit today’s circumstances, Rollefson said.
According to current rules, the SDBAB cannot even meet until after Nov. 5, which gives that board an extremely short timeline to make a decision — especially considering that the holidays fall right in the middle of that time period.
“We don’t even know who’s on that appeal board yet,” Rollefson said.
Should the dissolution be approved, it would fall to the state Department of Public Instruction to set rules as to how affected school districts could increase their revenue limits in keeping with their absorption of new students and new expenses.
Also needing to be taken into account are special circumstances, such as high-cost special education students who would need to be accommodated by their new districts.
As it moves forward, the Department of Public Instruction has asked for a point-plot map showing all of the Palmyra-Eagle students currently enrolled in that district and those living in the Palmyra-Eagle district who currently are open-enrolled elsewhere.
Rollefson said representatives of all of the area school districts are waiting with bated breath to see how this process unfolds, but the overall sense is that while there will be many challenges, the process will be handled with the students’ best interest in mind.
“We are very up in the air at this point, but they (residents and employees of the Palmyra-Eagle School District) are much more so,” he said.