PALMYRA — A meeting to decide the fate of the Palmyra-Eagle School District Thursday night felt a little like a speed-dating event in which there were a few interesting options, one no-show and even a few straight-up passes.
In front of a large crowd, officials from Palmyra-Eagle got to hear about potential landing spots for their student if the district is dissolved and must become part of another district.
The crowd in Palmyra-Eagle High School’s gym heard presentations from six area school districts that talked about financial issues, busing problems and not wanting to take on more debt.
“This wasn’t them bidding on us. This was a game of hot potato,” Scott Hoff, Palmyra-Eagle board of education president, said after the presentations.
That statement came as he was speaking to the crowd and answering questions about the last five years of the district and how they got to this point.
The state School District Boundary Appeals Board (SDBAD) fired questions at Hoff ranging from what the school board did over the last year knowing it was not financially stable, to what cuts could have been made. But one of the topics Hoff focused on was the open-enrollment issue that led to less funding for the district.
“We could bring this down to $1 million in spending,” Hoff told the board. “The kids will all leave, and this will look like a one-room schoolhouse.”
Hoff said the Palmyra-Eagle school board over the past year has looked at every option — from closing its two elementary schools and creating a K-12 building, to finding out if consolidating with a neighboring district would be an option.
“There is no proposal that doesn’t come with a fatal flaw,” Hoff said.
The district “kicked the can” to stay open another year. But the money is not there, he explained to the state board.
While each student brings in roughly $10,000 for a school district each year through state funding, the board pointed out that Palmyra-Eagle brings in about $15,000 per student. And with 606 students, that could work, it said.
But with so many students leaving the district, Hoff said financial woes would continue.
Hoff talked about what brought the district to this situation. He noted that five years ago, there was no school board president, no high school principal and plenty of other open positions.
“My first meeting, I became president. I didn’t back up fast enough,” Hoff said. “We worked our tails off to try to right the ship.”
Student test scores came up, he said, but the district ran out of money to pay for the system.
Dissolving the district, he said, is the only way to move forward.
There also was one idea floated about. If the Waukesha County community of Eagle were to branch off to another district, Hoff said, there is enough support in Jefferson County to get an operational referendum passed.
The question of whether to dissolve the school district heated up during April’s 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 “no” votes to 1,473 “yes” votes.
The district is facing almost $13 million in debt, and if it stays open in the fall of 2020, it will have a deficit.
The evening started with each school district getting 30 minutes to talk about its financial stability and what it could offer if students from Palmyra-Eagle became part of its district.
East Troy officials were first to give a presentation, saying that if district boundary lines are redrawn, they could take up to 350 students in their district. They went over bus times for students and had maps of routes that could work.
The presentation included many speakers who also talked about being one of the schools in the state with declining enrollment. About two-thirds of districts in the state are facing the same problem.
East Troy has the capacity and the buildings could grow in classroom size.
All the presentations also had to include what programs they offer. With a smaller school district like East Troy, students who come there would not have as much competition to be part of athletics or other programs than in larger districts, a topic that was discussed by other district administration leaders.
It was noted that one of the problems with dissolving a district is that the money that schools receive for each student is cut when the student goes to the new district.
For the first year of a student in a new district, the school only receives one-third of the funding, and for the second year, it receives only two-thirds. The funding is not fully intact until the third year.
However, the school that does take some or all of the students into its district takes on a proportionate amount of debt.
One of the largest pleas of the night came from the Kettle Moraine School District, which is facing its own financial problems.
Like the other districts, school officials recommended that the state board find another way to deal with the Palymra-Eagle issue rather than dissolving the district.
Officials from Kettle Moraine pointed out in a slide presentation that they are facing their own mortality when it comes to keeping the doors open.
They have cut so much over the years in programs that they don’t have things like FFA; nor do they have counselors on staff to help students at some of their schools. Even their school activities fees have doubled in the last year.
Without a referendum, they could face being dissolved in three to five years themselves, a group of officials said, adding that taking on any more students is not an option.
Other districts like Jefferson also gave the talk of not wanting to take on more debt that comes with drawing new boundary lines. Even if they only take 5 percent of the students, then 5 percent of that debt is more than $600,000.
One school district, Fort Atkinson, did not show up to the meeting, instead choosing to send a written statement to the board that was not read at the meeting. Thursday night marked that district’s regular board of education meeting (see related story on A1).
As each district representatives came to talk, Mukwonago was the one who said they would keep Eagle Elementary School open if Palmyra-Eagle dissolves into their district.
Superintendent Shawn McNutty told the board that their district is in good shape and they try to meet the needs of all their students.
The board also asked questions like how many open enrollment students are now in Mukwonago, and they also heard of a $49.5 million renovation of the school.
Another option for Palymra-Eagle was the district that had the last say, and also drew the most applause from the crowd.
Whitewater Unified School District Administrator Jim Shaw spoke briefly and talked of the problems his district faces, but also sent out a heartfelt plea to the board to help Palmyra-Eagle find the right path.
“When you lose your school, you lose a sense of community,” he said to a rousing ovation from a crowd that was wearing plenty of “purple pride” for Palmyra-Eagle.
“We don’t want a dissolution of the Palmyra-Eagle School District,” he said. “But we have to be willing to be part of the solution.”
With almost 2,000 students in the Whitewater district, Shaw laid out the problems they also face. He mentioned that only three students from Palmyra-Eagle currently are opened-enrolled in Whitewater.
“If a plan exists, other than dissolving, please pursue that,” he said.
There was talk during this presentation that Gov. Tony Evers has been keeping an eye on this situation.
Shaw also pointed out that Eagle wants to be part of Mukwonago, and Palmyra its own district, which drew another round of applause.
The key word of the night was open enrollment. Not only did many of the district officials mention that as a problem for school districts, but that also was the subject for some who spoke after when the public had a chance to go up and speak in front of the group.
The board also asked Hoff why so many students have opened-enrolled out. He said issues of too many principal changes over the years and even bullying was discussed as reasons for some students leaving.
With so much information to take in, the state board has little time to make a decision by Jan. 15, 2020.
The next and final meeting will be Dec. 5. That also marks the last date anyone can submit a letter for or against the dissolving of the district to the board. The meeting again will take place at the high school starting at 3:30 p.m., running until about 8:30 p.m.
While most of the people in attendance at Thursday night’s meeting appeared to be against dissolving the district, there were other residents who came out in favor of it.
One resident even said that with the downturn of the economy in 2008, people had smaller families and that might have contributed to this problem.
As residents came up to the podium to speak, those for and against the dissolution had to be told to quiet down a few times, with the board going as far as using a gavel to keep focus on the speaker.
When Huff also spoke to the board and the crowd, he said there are many consequences to any action, including dissolving the district.
He pointed out that students could continue to open-enroll out of the district.
To which an audience member shouted from the stands, “No one is leaving.”