Following the debate over dissolving the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District has been like watching a divorce unfold.
Two sides are fighting, and both say they want what is best for the children.
But what exactly is that?
Busing students to schools they might, or might not, want to attend?
Keeping open a school district that can hardly pay its bills?
No matter what side one is on, there is no doubt something is broken here.
Not only have key issues been discussed by the state School District Boundary Appeals Board leading up to its pending decision on Palmyra-Eagle’s future, but they also have been worrying school districts across Wisconsin that are in a similar situation and no doubt have been watching closely, hoping they are not the next domino to fall.
You can’t say “school district” in a sentence these days without adding the words “operational referendum.” No matter where you live, going to the ballot box has become the norm for helping fund our schools. Since the early 1990s, districts around the Badger State have gone to voters to get money to build, remodel or simply keep their doors open. And they have set record numbers: In the 2018 fall election, school referendum questions seeking more than $1.4 billion were on the ballot.
Mostly, voters have responded by stepping up to the plate and digging in their pockets to help. But there are districts that have trouble getting a new school — like in Columbus — and ones that have had 14 out of 16 referendums shot down — like Palmyra-Eagle.
But that’s only part of the problem. What Palmyra-Eagle’s woes have done is cast light on open enrollment in Wisconsin. People can point fingers, saying the former school board is the problem, or that poor spending habits got the district where it is, and they might be right. But to say open enrollment is not a factor would be extremely short-sighted.
Open enrollment started in 1998, enabling parents to move their children to schools in communities in which, say, they work or have after-school care or where their children’s needs might be better met. But what seemed like a good idea at the time has ballooned into something negatively affecting the schools left behind.
Without successful operational referendums, small school districts that are near large ones can find it difficult to compete with what their neighbors offer in terms of academics, athletics, equipment or other resources. Same goes for rich vs. poor districts.
The number of students participating in open enrollment has grown annually for the past 20 years in Wisconsin, from 2,464 students the first year to more than 60,000 in the 2017-18 academic year.
In those two decades, the per-pupil state aid that has gone with them has risen every year except one — 2011-12, when it stayed even. During the first 10 years of open enrollment, the average increase in money moving to other districts rose $12.5 million annually; the past nine years’ average has increased by $29.5 million annually. For the 2017-18 school year, $419 million moved out of home districts.
And for every winner with open enrollment, there also is a loser.
The top five school districts in the state that are losing students and funding due to open enrollment are all small districts except Delavan-Darien. Twin Lakes is the leader, with almost 47 percent of students open-enrolling out. Palmyra-Eagle is next at 39 percent, followed by Albany at 28 percent, Delavan-Darien at 26 percent and Florence at 24 percent.
Florence also faced being dissolved in 2005 after three straight failed referendums. District electors saved their schools in an 11th-hour successful operational referendum.
Tonight, Palmyra-Eagle likely will learn its fate. Whatever it is, let the district be the last in Wisconsin to suffer at the hands of poor funding formulas and open-enrollment exoduses.
We call on our state lawmakers to set aside partisan politics and meet with Gov. Tony Evers — our former state superintendent of schools — to craft the tools that can fix this process before small districts go the way of the one-room schoolhouse.