PALMYRA — Dozens of teachers, students, parents and advocates gathered at Palmyra-Eagle High School and Middle School Saturday to kick off a 60-mile march to the Capitol in Madison as a way to fight for an increase in public school funding.
The four-day march was organized by Wisconsin Public Education Network director Heather Dubois Bourenane and Milwaukee Public Schools Board director Megan O’Halloran as a way to “demand restoration of the $900 million cut from the proposed education budget,” they said.
The kickoff rally in front of the school brought speakers and sign-wielding supporters from school districts around the state.
The location of the kickoff wasn’t a coincidence — and the reason for a lack of dry eyes in the crowd. The march started in Palmyra because in April, the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District voted to dissolve due to funding issues.
One of the speakers at the rally was Joel Tortomasi, a teacher in the Palmyra-Eagle district for 15 years. His wife, Kim Leal, taught in the district for 12 years and now is working at Jefferson Middle School.
Tortomasi and Leal have two children, one of whom already has started school in the district.
“Living in the community, we would’ve loved to stay,” Tortomasi said. “We’re hoping to bring knowledge to people. We will be the first of many cuts.”
Tortomasi said he was frustrated with the political process over school funding.
“The education budget shouldn’t be a game of children versus other items like infrastructure,” he said. “We’ve endured cut after cut after cut.”
State Rep. Christine Sinicki, a Democrat representing the 20th Assembly District, also was at the rally. She said Palmyra was a fitting place to start a fight for public school funding.
“I’m so glad we started in the little town of Palmyra,” Sinicki said. “A closure doesn’t just affect the students and teachers; it affects the whole community.”
The value of the Palmyra community and what it will mean to the village and surrounding townships if the schools disappear is clear to people such as Dan and Debbie Agen, who have lived there for decades.
Dan’s grandparents graduated from Palmyra-Eagle High School in the 1930s, Dan’s father graduated from the school in 1955, Dan graduated in 1977, Dan’s son graduated in 2000, and his grandson was to have graduated in 2023.
That’s five generations of Agens at Palmyra-Eagle High School.
“We are devastated,” Debbie Agen said. “The community has worked so hard.”
The impact the school will have on the area is especially painful for the Agens because of how much they love Palmyra and what it means for the children they’ve watched grow up there.
“This is the greatest place for kids to grow up,” Dan said. “Great kids have come out of this school. Doctors, lawyers.”
The impact on Palmyra and the Agen family is a case study for what cutting public school funding does to a community, according to Dubois Bourenane.
“That’s such a sad story,” Dubois Bourenane said. “It’s disrupting tradition; it’s disrupting communities. This impacts real people.”
For her, Dubois Bourenane said, the fate of Palmyra shows what can happen to all 860,000 students in Wisconsin Public Schools and shows her why she needs to march the full 60 miles.
During her welcome remarks, O’Halloran said that when she recently was elected to the Milwaukee school board, one of the first things she received was an 800-page budget document.
“I was so excited to hear that we were going to have $1.4 billion reinvested in our schools,” she said, referring to the original budget proposed by Gov. Tony Evers.
“At end of that process, though, you know, $900 million had been cut out of that and that made the decisions that we were making so much more difficult. I think that if just the special education funding we’re walking for right now … had gone through the way that had been proposed, that would represent $63 million more for MPS.”
O’Halloran, one of two MPS representatives to speak, said she was inspired by an educator in Camden, N.J. who walked in Trenton to get funding because 10 schools in his community were being closed.
“So this is a fight that’s happening around the country; it’s a fight that’s happening around this state, and I recognize that this is the start of something that we might get to the end of this and they may continue to vote for a budget that will fail our kids here another two years,” she said. “And I just have to walk into that with my eyes open.
“But if we leave this community and the only thing that happens as of today is to know that you … are not alone,” that is important, she told Palmyra. “We around the state see your work and we appreciate your work and our heart breaks with you; you’re not alone. We are all in this with you.”
Also taking the microphone was Tara LeRoy, a Palmyra resident and parent.
“I am a parent who believes in the value of education and particularly our amazing rural education right here,” LeRoy said. “And I have seen firsthand the damage that has already been done to our kids and our entire community through the current educational funding system. I wholeheartedly support this school district we have here and it breaks my heart that we have been pushed to the point of actually losing it.
“For those of you that don’t know why this historic march is starting right here in the heartbeat of the Kettle Moraine and beautiful Palmyra, our district has become an unfortunate victim and a prime example of just how inadequate our current system is,” she continued. “In a few short weeks, our school board is expected to vote on dissolution of our entire district. We’re not just closing one or two schools, (but) the entire district, 760 kids ... we’ll lose what we all love so much because the State of Wisconsin is not giving our kids what they have a right to have.”
She said that the lack of money to keep the school district operating is not the district’s fault. Rather, she said, it is “because legislators can’t keep campaign promises, because Democrats and Republicans can’t cross the bridge together and work together and refuse to understand the value of investing in education. Good schools like ours will continue to be lost and our kids will continue to suffer. We asked for an operation and maintenance referendum for $11.5 million spread out over four years and it failed, and it wasn’t for lack of trying to get it passed.”
She added that public education is not a privilege that should be reserved for the only wealthiest of communities. Rather, it should be forwarded to everyone and state legislators need to understand that.
“And so, we’re going to march to Madison. We’re going to demand our legislators ... create a budget that starts putting our kids first,” she concluded.
Winding down the remarks, Bourenane pointed out that districts’ belts cannot get any tighter without strangling students.
“That is not okay with any of us and that’s why we’re here. This is not about the money; it’s about the kids. ... It’s about democracy.
“We started in Palmyra because your story should break the heart of every single person in this state as much as it breaks the heart of those of us here,” Bourenane said. “ ... We’re going to tell this story in Hebron. We’re going to tell this story in Fort Atkinson. We’re going to tell the story in Cambridge. We’re going to tell the story in Deerfield. We’re going to tell the story in Marshall. We’re going to tell this story in Sun Prairie and we’re going to tell the story in Madison.
“Whether they’re listening or not, our stories matter, our kids matter and our schools matter.”
The march was scheduled to stop for rallies at Fort Atkinson High School Sunday morning; Cambridge High School Sunday afternoon at 12:30 p.m.; and Deerfield High School Monday morning at 8:30 a.m.; Marshall High School Monday afternoon at 12:30 p.m.; Patrick Marsh Middle School in Sun Prairie Tuesday morning at 8:30 a.m. and Madison East High School Tuesday afternoon at 12:30 p.m. before it ends at the State Capitol that day at 2:30 p.m.