WHITEWATER — Meeting in special session Monday, the Whitewater Unified School District School Board discussed the impact of absorbing students from the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District should that neighboring district dissolve.
During the April 2 election, voters in the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District rejected a non-recurring four-year operational referendum for the district.
The referendum sought permission to exceed the state-imposed revenue limit to operate and maintain the schools over the next four years. It asked to exceed the limits by $1.75 million in the 2019-20 school year, $2.5 million in the 2020-21 school year, $3.25 million in the 2021-22 school year and $4 million in the 2022-23 school year.
The Palmyra-Eagle Area School District made clear that the district would have to dissolve itself if the referendum failed due to budget shortfalls.
The final April vote tally was 2,276 “no” votes and 1,473 “yes” votes across the district, which includes towns and villages in Jefferson, Walworth and Waukesha counties. That meant that electors chose to dissolve the district rather than increase property taxes by the proposed referendum amounts.
On April 8, the Palmyra-Eagle school board voted 6-1 to take the first step in the legal process toward dissolving the district, as required by state laws.
Accordingly, upcoming this July, the school board will vote on a resolution to formally dissolve the district “following the 2019-2020 school year.” Following that vote, again in accordance with state laws, the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI) will become involved in the process, and a School District Boundary Appeal Board (SDBAB) will take over the process.
The official dissolution process will continue throughout the year, with a final decision expected to be made in January 2020.
However, another step in that process, before the SDBAB takeover, would be to hold an “advisory referendum” that could be completed in November. That advisory referendum could be made by the school board or by resident petitions.
Should the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District dissolution be finalized by the state, students would have to attend other schools, likely those in one of the seven districts that border the Palmyra-Eagle district. Many students, mostly in the eastern Eagle part of the district, already open-enroll to the Mukwonago School District in Waukesha County.
However, others, many of whom live in the Jefferson and Walworth counties portions of the district, likely will end up in either the Kettle Morraine, Fort Atkinson or Whitewater school districts, though some possibly could go to the East Troy, Jefferson or Oconomowoc school districts.
The final decision on those boundaries is up to the SDBAB, which will consist of one DPI employee and two representatives each from a “big school, medium school and small school,” but none being from any of the seven districts that currently border the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District.
According to Whitewater Unified School District Administrator Dr. Mark Elworthy and district business director Matthew Sylvester-Knudson, should the SDBAB redraw the boundaries of the Palmyra-Eagle district, the assets and liabilities will be apportioned based on property value transferred to other districts.
As Sylvester-Knudson explained it, if Whitewater were to get, for example, 40 percent of the Palmyra-Eagle assets, that means it would also get 40 percent of its liabilities, with the remaining 60 percent divided in some way between the other six districts.
Likewise, the current taxpayers of the Palmyra-Eagle district would become taxpayers in some other district.
As further explained by Sylvester-Knudson, the employees of the Palmyra-Eagle district would become employees of the surrounding districts, or “If any employee of the dissolved district is laid oﬀ, they will have priority over other persons, except employees of the new district and former employees of that district who were laid oﬀ from that district, for three years after the eﬀective date of the reorganization for new positions and vacant positions for which they are qualiﬁed.”
Sylvester-Knudson noted that for the 2018-19 school year, for state aid purposes, the base revenue limit per member for Palmyra-Eagle was $9,672, while Whitewater only was slightly higher, at $9,763. Sylvester-Knudson clarified that the Whitewater figure does not include Whitewater’s operating referendum monies, to keep the comparisons more accurate.
Sylvester-Knudson noted that there are approximately 229 students at Palmyra Elementary School, 152 at Eagle Elementary School, 133 at the middle school and 255 at the high school.
“If proportionate enrollment in the middle school and high school (is) as in elementary, 60 percent of students would be from the Palmyra Elementary attendance area,” he explained.
Additionally, he estimated in the same way that there would be 80 middle school students and 153 high school students entering the Whitewater Unified School District.
He also noted that for the most recent school year, there were three Whitewater students who open-enrolled in Palmyra-Eagle and three Palmyra-Eagle students open-enrolled in Whitewater.
“That is a wash” for aid purposes, he said.
The presentation was made for informational purposes only, and the board took no action on the topic after Sylvester-Knudson and Elworthy were done with their presentation. Board members asked some questions and speculated on possibilities, but there remain too many unknown variables in the process for either of the administrators to provide accurate answers.
Those variables and remaining questions include topics such as will dissolution actually be approved; what property will be allocated to Whitewater, if any; how many students will live within that property; and what will funding look like afterward?
Sylvester-Knudson commented after the meeting.
“Tonight, we just started talking about the process if Palmyra-Eagle were to dissolve,” he said. “Palmyra-Eagle took the first step back in April, and we anticipate they will take the next step in July, at which point the state would step in and take over from there and decide in Palmyra-Eagle can dissolve. From that, we would know what the impact would be from our district in January of 2020.”
In other matters Monday, the board:
• Formally accepted the resignation of James Pease, district athletic director and high school physical education teacher, that was effective on May 28.
The board also accepted the resignations of special education paraprofessionals Michael Hookstead and Grant Ward, effective at the end of the 2018-19 school year.
• Hired Serena Rudzinski as a math teacher for both the middle and high school, Amanda Geyer as a middle school special education teacher, Camden Harlan as high school English teacher, Daniel Imp as a school psychologist, and Chelsea Niewiedzial as part-time counselor at Lakeview Elementary School.
• Approved the transfer of math teacher Jason Bleck from the middle school to the high school, effective for the 2019-20 school year.
• Hired Cynthia Collins to the newly created position of registrar/business services associate.
• Heard an update from Sylvester-Knudson on forecasting district revenues and expenditures through 2023-24, which included the current state biennial budget discussions as an influential topic. That led the board to have a discussion on the potential and conceptual impacts of the still-unfinished state budget on the district.