PALMYRA — Open enrollment.
Poor decisions by past school board members.
And two towns that don’t like each other much.
These all are reasons floated about in the past two months when people have gathered to discuss what happened in the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District.
And like the cause, there are no simple answers for a solution.
On the eve of the vote that might decide the fate of the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District, local and state representatives are keeping an eye on what is happening. They have been working behind the scenes for months talking to school districts and those involved in the possible dissolution of the district that is now in the hands of seven people that make up the state School District Boundary Appeals Board (SDBAB).
But how did it get to this point?
That is a question three local representatives considered as they looked at a situation that affects the districts they represent and the rest of the state, where 70 percent of schools are experiencing a decline in enrollment.
“There could be some very unhappy people after the situation is finished in Palmyra-Eagle,” said state Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, whose district represents the Whitewater Unified School District that has been talked about as a landing point for some of the Palmyra-Eagle students should their district be dissolved.
Since nearly a year ago, state Rep. Cody Horlacher, R-Mukwonago, has been meeting with area school district superintendents, trying to put together stakeholders for what is best for the students, he said.
He tried to work out an agreement that would split the Palmyra-Eagle students between Mukwonago and Whitewater were Palmyra-Eagle district dissolved.
“It’s a real situation that we are dealing with,” he said. “Unfortunately, Whitewater backed out.”
The decision by the state board could affect not only the district and students of Palymra-Eagle, but also surrounding districts if students were to be sent there. And with those students goes Palmyra-Eagle’s debt.
With an April 2019 referendum that failed to provide money to the district and another in November as a nonbinding referendum to dissolve, both Horlacher and Mike Mikalsen, chief of staff for state Sen. Stephen Nass, R-Whitewater, support the voice of the voters.
The idea of breaking up Palmyra-Eagle also has been a topic for people attending the state board’s meetings the past few months. But any scenario comes with questions.
“I don’t want to be carving up school districts,” Horlacher said.
“You would see skyrocketing property costs,” he said, describing what would happen if the district does not dissolve, but Palmyra and Eagle were to split.
“If taxpayers want to retain their school, that is their prerogative,” he said.
Mikalsen, speaking on behalf of Nass, said the state senator has been trying to stay out of the situation. But he and Nass have looked at the facts and voice of the voters and have met with area school superintendents from the region.
The School District Boundary Appeals Board will either dissolve the district and set forth a plan for where students will go or it will allow the district to keep functioning.
And the latter decisions also will have its share of questions.
“How will the district operate? That is the great unknown,” Mikalsen said.
One of the issues on what path to take if the school is dissolved is how to split up the district when many of the other neighboring districts do not want to be involved. There is about $12.8 million of debt that follows students leaving Palmyra-Eagle, and the per-pupil state funding that goes with each student is not fully installed until year three after a school district is dissolved.
In meeting with seven area superintendents, Vruwink said, he did not see many that wanted to be part of this. He said the reason he is keeping track of the situation is to make sure that Whitewater, which has made gains in test scores and financial stability, does not suffer a setback.
Vruwink, a teacher by trade who worked in the Milton School District, said what is happening in Palymra-Eagle is not an isolated problem.
“Open enrollment hurts a school like Palmyra-Eagle when you have a Division 1 school next to it,” he said, pointing out that there are so many more options for students at larger schools.
Those options include more advanced placement classes where students can earn college credit — something Vruwink saw in Milton where students could earn an entire semester of college credit before they even get to college.
“Palmyra-Eagle can’t offer that,” he said. “Mukwonago can. That is what open enrollment does.”
The smaller schools losing the enrollment become the losers, he said.
A member of the Assembly Education Committee at the state Capitol, Vruwink said there are school districts in the state that are having similar financial problems, and he said there have been bills put forth to help certain schools gain a referendum when they are not yet eligible to do so. He said he would like all schools to be treated equally.
Horlacher said school funding always is an issue up for debate and there are no easy answers to that. He said that creating a new system for funding is an incredible challenge.
“Not to say that can’t be done,” he added.
Open enrollment is not the only issue that has faced Palmyra-Eagle, but certainly it is one that has been brought up at each meeting with the state board. Horlacher said he has been hearing in his district that people open-enroll based on programming the school has. He also hears about declining enrollments.
But with each student that comes to, or leaves a district, about $10,000 follows.
The bigger issue, Mikalsen said, is why people are choosing to leave a district.
As of the 2017-18 school year, there were 60,000 students who open-enrolled in Wisconsin. And with that, $419 million moved with them.
“You look around the state at those 60,000. Those districts are the better-performing districts in the region,” he said.
Nass, he said, supports open enrollment.
“If you truly believe your child will have an opportunity somewhere else, you should have that option,” Horlacher agreed.
Mikalsen said the problems in Palmyra-Eagle run much deeper than open enrollment, calling it a scapegoat for what is happening. He said that as long as he has been at his job, those two communities have been fighting and not getting along.
Eagle, he said, has grown much faster than Palmyra. Mikalsen said one must look at the reasons why, citing anti-growth policies in Jefferson County.
The question, he said, is how does Palmyra-Eagle continue to grow?
He said the current Palmyra-Eagle school board was left with some bad decisions made in the early 2000s that hurt the district. One of those decisions dealt with building upgrades and a state energy policy that allowed schools to get money.
Mikalsen said those policies were abused by some school districts and former Gov. Scott Walker stopped the program.
“That was one of the terrible decisions the school district made,” Mikalsen said.
As the vote on dissolving the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District nears Thursday at the Palmyra-Eagle High School starting at 3:30 p.m., Mikalsen said he hopes people look at the facts and separate them from emotion.
Mikalsen said schools need to focus on what students and families want. And he said there were issues long ago in Palmyra-Eagle where the focus did not provide the academic opportunities and the district focused on the staff more than the students.
“This is what open enrollment is designed to do,” he said.
Vruwink said the goal now is to find the best solution for Palmyra-Eagle. But he knows that funding for schools is something that is an ongoing concern, as is declining enrollment.
“Declining-enrollment districts are getting hurt by open enrollment,” he said.
And when he looks at ongoing funding for schools, he said there are problems.
“Palmyra-Eagle is paying the price for things we have done,” Vruwink concluded.