WHITEWATER — Whitewater Unified School District officials are clear in saying they do not want the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District to dissolve, yet they must prepare for that possibility despite their concerns.
An advisory referendum last week showed that 53 percent of voters in the Palmyra-Eagle district want to dissolve (1,219 in favor and 1,082 against). This came after the district’s school board voted to dissolve in July after a failed April operating referendum.
Now a series of meetings with the state School District Boundary Appeal Board are under way that ultimately will help the board decide the district’s fate before its deadline Jan. 15.
Jim Shaw, Whitewater’s interim district administrator, said they want every school district to have the wherewithal to operate on its own. And as educators, they are “concerned” for the students who are affected by district boundary changes.
But he said their job is to act on behalf of Whitewater students.
“Even though there has not been a decision made yet, we are concerned about our obligations to our children in Whitewater and to what increased responsibility we may have to educate children who are not currently in our boundaries,” he said.
Matthew Sylvester-Knudtson, director of business services for the Whitewater district, said the unknown about what will happen with their neighboring school district has been the biggest challenge.
If they get new boundaries — which the appeal board would draw — Whitewater has to look at how getting additional students would fit in the district’s current building capacity and, if they get other buildings, whether there will be enough students to fill them, he said.
Transportation could be another challenge for students, too.
Shaw and Sylvester-Knudtson said they are hoping the impact on Whitewater students would be minimal and the district would not have to make any major changes to programs and staffing.
From a financial perspective, they said, there is no incentive or burden to taking on more students after this potential dissolution. Sylvester-Knudtson said that generally speaking, more students means more state funding, but he also pointed to how districts are relying on operational referenda to fund schools as they are.
District financial figures from the Oct. 28 board meeting estimated the effect of adding the Jefferson and Walworth County pieces of Palmyra-Eagle’s district as bringing the total tax levy from about $16.9 million to $21.6 million and the tax rate down from $11.50 to about $11.30.
Sylvester-Knudtson said they are preparing to absorb anywhere between zero and roughly 400 students, based on about how many students from the Palmyra-Eagle district are in Jefferson and Walworth counties.
At that same board meeting, Shaw said, the school board made a resolution asking legislators for a way to incorporate a plan Whitewater has been working on with the Mukwonago Area School District about the dissolution process.
Whitewater officials will get a chance to speak before the appeal board. But that is the extent to which its voice will be present in this process, Sylvester-Knudtson said.
“We want a voice. We want to be heard,” Shaw said. “We want to be part of any kind of negotiations that could impact Whitewater.”
On Thursday, Sylvester-Knudtson attended the first public hearings with the appeal board. The next is scheduled for 3:30 to 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 14, at Eagle Elementary School.
If the state appeal board allows the dissolution, it would take effect July 1, 2020.
“This could set precedent for how school funding is impacted and how dissolution, if it occurs somewhere else, occurs,” Shaw said.