PALYMRA — Without a school in Palmyra, there would be no “second home” for students, a seventh-grader said Thursday night before a crowded high school gym. And if she has to attend a new school, she worries about sitting at lunch by herself.
It was heartfelt moments like that and pleas to “save our school” from current and former Palmyra-Eagle Area School District students that dominated Thursday’s meeting with the state School District Boundary Appeals Board (SDBAD).
But the testimony that caused the crowd to rise to their feet with a standing ovation came from Haley Parsons, who graduated from Palmyra-Eagle High School in 2011.
Without having attended a small school, Parsons told the crowd, she would not have had the opportunity to participate in all the extracurricular activities, from sports to yearbook, that helped her get into the University of Wisconsin-Madison and graduate with a degree. She also was able to get scholarships to help pay for 80 percent of her education.
Parsons, who works in education for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, said she has spent time teaching about 40,000 students in the state through her job, and she is going back to UW-Madison next year to get her master’s degree.
She is one success story for SDBAD members to consider as they near a decision by Jan. 15, 2020 on whether to dissolve the Palymra-Eagle Area School District.
The question of dissolution arose last April when voters shot down a nonrecurring four-year operational referendum seeking $1.75 million the first year and climbing each year until reaching $4 million the fourth year. The vote was 2,276 “no” votes to 1,473 “yes” votes.
Thursday marked the fourth and final public “hearing” before the SDBAD, as well as the last day the board would accept written comments from the public before making its decision.
Two weeks ago, the board held a meeting at which area school district representatives shared their concerns about being part of the landing spot for students were Palmyra-Eagle to dissolve. Representatives from Jefferson, Kettle Moraine, East Troy, Whitewater and Mukwonago all gave presentations, with Fort Atkinson submitting a written statement.
Only Mukwonago supported adding students from Palmyra-Eagle, with East Troy saying it could take about half. The rest of the districts voiced financial concerns about taking on more debt and worries about long bus rides for students.
“This wasn’t them bidding on us. This was a game of hot potato,” Scott Hoff, Palmyra-Eagle Area School District Board of Education president, said during that November presentation.
Hoff said the Palmyra-Eagle board during 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.
Student test scores came up, he said, but the district ran out of money to pay for the system. Any district that takes on students from Palmyra-Eagle also must take on a proportionate amount of the $12.8 million debt, he pointed out.
A common theme voiced Thursday night was to send Eagle residents to the Mukwonago School District and keep Palmyra students in Palmyra.
Dan Bush, director of finances for the state Department of Public Instruction, gave an hour-long presentation on what dissolving a district looks like for the rest of the area schools. And it was not pretty.
“It is difficult to sell a school building,” he said.
Even though the value as a school is worth more, Bush said, the assets of the buildings and furnishings might be worth only about $20 million, but that’s hard to judge.
He also told the board that if Palmyra-Eagle does not open next fall, the bills for the bonds are still due. Palmyra-Eagle will receive money as a district for 2020-21, however.
While each student brings in roughly $10,000 in state funding to a school district annually, the board pointed out at the Nov. 21 meeting that Palmyra-Eagle brings in about $15,000 per student. And a slimmed-down district with 606 students could work, it said.
One of the problems with dissolving a district is that the per-pupil funding districts receive follows students to their new district. However, that first year, the district only receives one-third of the funding, and the second year, two-thirds. The funding is not full until the third year.
Were the district to dissolve, and close by July 1, 2020, residents in the Palymra-Eagle district still would have to pay property taxes for another year.
One of the most interesting questions of the night came when Bush presented the district audit, with one SDBAD member going as far as to say that this could determine his decision.
The question was: Did anything in the audit look out of place or illegal?
“No,” was the simple answer from Bush.
The budget didn’t balance this last year because spending was $184,000 higher than budgeted, but that is common for a district this size, Bush noted. Projected enrollment numbers could be the cause, he said.
One of the bigger issues Bush talked about was how other districts would take on the bond issue of the debt.
Since this was the SDBAD’s fourth meeting, the public had a final say as one after another came up to the microphone to talk. There were a few who spoke in favor of dissolution, but most urged the board to save the district.
From students to parents, the message was mostly the same to the state board: The schools need your help to stay open. And the help of Gov. Tony Evers and lawmakers.
Jeff Tortomasi, a former educator, gave a detailed presentation to the board talking about how open enrollment has affected not just Palmyra-Eagle, but school districts across the state, as well.
He focused on each district that each SDBAD member represents. In the Green Bay area, he said, about 1,000 students open-enroll into area districts, and with them goes their per-pupil state funding.
He pointed out that the number of students open-enrolling has increased annually for the last 20 years.
Tortomasi said that when open enrollment began in Wisconsin in 1998, only about $9 million in state funding moved around. That year, 2,464 students opened-enrolled. In the 2017-18 school year, that number was 60,000 students with about $419 million in funding following them.
“Mukwonago has been predator of open enrollment for years,” Tortomasi said.