PALYMRA — It was business as usual one week after a state panel voted to not dissolve the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District.
Well, sort of.
Palmyra-Eagle Superintendent Steve Bloom said he credits the staff for persevering and being dedicated to the students during this tough time. However, he emphasized that the landslide of problems that threaten the district does not go away with one vote.
“The needs do not go away by the denial,” he said.
And those financial needs, among others, will have to be addressed by the board of education, which soon will have a very different look.
On Tuesday, three school board members from the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District resigned, giving heartfelt speeches.
Board President Scott Hoff and members Tara Bollmann and Carrie Ollis all resigned less than a week after the state School District Boundary Appeals Board voted against dissolving the district.
“It’s harder than anybody thinks it is,” Hoff said Wednesday morning. “I thought, joining the board five years ago, we would bring some politeness. Unfortunately, we ran into some situations that created a firestorm. It’s really hard to resign.”
Electors ignited the firestorm in April when they rejected an operational referendum to fund the district, which was followed by a failed advisory referendum seeking school support. The school board subsequently voted to dissolve the district, which was in debt and losing students through open enrollment. After two months of hearing input from all sides, the School District Boundary Appeals Board made its decision.
At those meetings the past two weeks, residents planning to run for school board in the April election tried to spell out potential remedies for the school district’s woes, including one plan in which an anonymous investor would match up to $100,000 if there are changes to the board of education’s makeup.
They also mentioned possible changes to the current staff in the district, including looking at cutting some management spots to free up more money for a district that is projected to have a $326,000 shortcoming this fall if they continue.
“If somebody came forward, and truly comes forward, with $100,000, it is pretty selfish for me to stay on. The district needs money more than me,” Hoff said, referring to the potential anonymous donor.
Last week, eight candidates filed to run for three school board seats that will be up for election in April. A primary will take place Feb. 18 to narrow the field to six.
Incumbents Justin Thomas and Cory Jones’ terms are not expiring. Incumbent Mat Mecca is not running for a new term in April. Incumbent Michael Eddy is on the April ballot for re-election.
However, with three members whose terms were not up in April resigning, there eventually will be nearly all new faces on the seven-member board.
For now, there are four members on the board until the next election, or unless someone is appointed to fill the three new vacancies.
In her speech to the board, and others in attendance, during Tuesday’s board meeting, Ollis said that the past year has been hard, with many hateful and negative comments directed at the board and district. She said she has been called a “thief” and “member of the mob,” and said the comments on social media that refer to bullying at the school are “hypocritical.””
All “because we chose to stand up to try and make a difference in the community,” Ollis said.
Ollis, who supported dissolution, said that not dissolving the district only prolongs the negative mentality that is hurting the community.
In a heartfelt speech of her own, Bollmann said she is sick of seeing two communities tear each other apart.
She said she will not stand in the way of someone else who wants to try to save the district, but she wanted to point out to the students that the school is not saved yet, as there is a long process ahead.
“The emotional rollercoaster which they have been on is not fair. And is very sad. They deserve far better,” she said.
And to the candidates seeking seats in April, some of whom were in the audience, she offered encouragement.
“There are not many times in my life where I challenge someone to prove me wrong, but this is one of those times. I truly hope they do so,” she said.
When a new board takes over, it will be looking to cut or come up with about $1.8 million — that is the shortfall for the future budget.
Bloom acknowledged that a new board will have much work ahead of it to turn things around. And it will need some new ideas if the school district is to continue in the future.
All those conversations, he said, will be heavily dependent on the school board elections.
He also said that the School District Boundary Appeals Board was in a really difficult spot, and that this is an opportunity for lawmakers to review the process and make changes.
One of the issues, he said, is were the district dissolved, a student entering a new district would not count for the full amount of per-pupil state funds for three years. At the same time, the district’s debt transfers to the new district in the full amount.
Bloom said he knows other districts around the state have been watching this unfold with a close eye.
“Because other districts might be in the same situation,” he said.
Last Thursday, a crowd erupted in cheers and applause at the middle school gym following the 6-1 vote to deny dissolving the district by the state School District Boundary Appeals Board.
The state board’s vote came shortly after an hour of going through the process of how it would proceed. A motion to vote on denying the dissolving of the district was made by Katie Maloney, of the Green Bay Area School District.
After all seven board members cast paper ballots, the votes were read one-by-one, with the lone “no” vote cast by David Carlson, the state superintendent’s designee.
Shortly after the vote, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor issued a statement.
“Faced with a question that had no perfect answer, the seven-member group heard hours of passionate testimony from people whose lives will be impacted. My designee, David Carlson, voted to affirm dissolution, which I support, based on the local school board’s decision, and the affirmation of the advisory referendum,” she said.
This week, Stanford Taylor said she is not running for state superintendent after her term is up next year.
Now, the process of moving forward will be a long and difficult one for Palmyra-Eagle, which has become financially unstable.
Its debt has ballooned to $12.8 million that would have followed students to new districts had Palmyra-Eagle been dissolved. The district must find ways to pay that debt.
But a larger issue is what to do to change district residents’ minds when it comes time to vote on a future referendum to keep the schools operating. Out of the last 16 referendums in the district, only two have been successful.
Before Thursday’s vote, the School District Boundary Appeals Board laid out the four options on which members could vote. The first was to deny dissolving of the district. The second option was to split the district between the Mukwonago and Whitewater school districts. The third option involved the East Troy School District and the fourth would have sent all the students to Mukwonago.
Since a motion was made only on the first option to deny dissolving the district, the crowd last week waited extremely quiet for the board to say anything. After the vote, the crowd was informed that was the last step and the cheering began.
Now, Palmyra-Eagle residents will have to wait and see what happens next, with the February primary and April election coming up for the school board.
The question of whether to dissolve the school district heated up during the April 2019 election when voters shot down a nonrecurring four-year operational referendum that asked residents for $1.75 million the first year and climbed each year until reaching $4 million the fourth year.
The vote was 2,276 “nos” to 1,473 “yeses.”
But it also was split down county lines, with the school district touching parts of Jefferson, Walworth and Waukesha counties.
There were 1,453 “no” votes from Waukesha County residents alone, with Jefferson County electors overall in favor of the April referendum.
A second, nonbinding referendum was held in November that asked if the district would support the school, and that also failed.
Open enrollment is one of the larger factors in talking about the issues that this district had faced.
Since 2009, Palmyra-Eagle has had one of the highest open-enrollment numbers in the state, with almost 40 percent of students leaving during that time, according to state figures.
Now a new board will see if they can stop the flow of students out of the district and get the budget under control.
“People have all the new ideas to save it,” Hoff said as one of the reasons he is stepping aside. “They need to have the opportunity to do that.”