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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

The Palmyra-Eagle School District almost dissolved. Two years later, leaders are hopeful for the future

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Amy Muth reads to her 5K students. Muth was one of the few elementary teachers who stayed with the district when it consolidated its two elementary schools. She taught at Palmyra Elementary, which is now closed, for 12 years. "I stayed with district because I believe in the district," Muth said.

Two years ago, the rural Palmyra-Eagle School District, which spans parts of Jefferson and Waukesha Counties, was on the verge of dissolution.

But a state-appointed board denied the dissolution request, giving the district another chance to address its financial challenges.

The district of about 600 students closed an elementary school, moved sixth graders to its middle/high school, downsized administrative staff, and temporarily cut employee pay. It also experienced an almost complete turnover in leadership, who brought with them a different perspective on the financial situation.

Now, leaders say Palmyra-Eagle is financially stable.

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Palmyra Elementary School stands empty. The district closed it in 2020 to save money. Now Eagle Elementary is the only K-5 school in the district.

Katie Robertson took over as principal at Eagle Elementary a year and a half ago, after the district shuttered Palmyra Elementary School and moved its students to Eagle.

"We wanted to become one elementary school," Robertson said. "So we were not divided into Palmyra students or Eagle students. We refer to ourselves as part of Panther Nation and being really part of that school community and focusing on building something together."

On a recent Friday morning, Robertson stopped by a 4-year-old kindergarten class where students were painting pictures of sea creatures.

"Did you know blue, yellow and white makes green?" one student announced.

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Four-year-old kindergarten students paint pictures of octopuses. Eagle Elementary's 4K enrollment was high enough this year to add a third classroom. All other grade levels have two classrooms.

Last year, Eagle Elementary started a full-day 4K program and before-and-after-school care to try to attract families. It seems to have worked this school year.

"We went from 42 4K [students] last year to 63 this year," Robertson said. "So we had to add an extra section."

It could be a hopeful sign after years of plummeting enrollment.

In 10 years, Palmyra-Eagle has gone from more than 1,000 students to less than 600. It is surrounded by bigger districts and loses hundreds of students to them through open enrollment. In particular, many Eagle families choose neighboring Mukwonago schools, which are on the route for parents commuting east.

Assistant principal Joel Tortomasi, who has held a variety of roles during his 18 years at Palmyra-Eagle, said the district serves two very different communities.

"It's a rural but suburban community," Tortomasi, who lives in Palmyra, said. "So many people in Eagle commute to Waukesha, commute to Milwaukee to work. And Palmyra is much more agricultural and more farm community — but it's all one district with different family perspectives and directions their kids are going to go."

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Eagle Elementary Principal Katie Robertson says goodbye to students leaving for the day.

Principal Robertson said the community should fight for its local schools, even if many families are opting out.

"The better your local schools are the more attractive they are to parents, the more people that want to set down roots, the more businesses that can come," Robertson said. "So just because you don’t have a student here at Eagle Elementary, doesn’t mean that you aren’t benefitting from a really strong public community school."

Open enrollment continues to drain students from Palmyra-Eagle, but this year, the number of children leaving the district fell slightly, and the number coming in rose. For the first time in several years, the district's total student count was stable compared to the previous year.

"I think it feels like we’re turning a corner," said Palmyra-Eagle Middle/High School Principal Kari Timm.

Timm has been with the district for 21 years, through the financial uncertainty, and now through a pandemic.

"We talk a lot about living in survival mode for really two years, because we did," Timm said. "And now this year trying to push past that to thriving mode."

During the two school years where dissolution was looming, there was a major exodus of teachers from the district. This year, Timm says staffing has stabilized, but colleagues sometimes ask her: is the district’s financial crisis really over?

"Can I tell you financially how it’s possible? I can’t, I’ll be honest," Timm said. "But I believe where we are right now is in a good place financially."

Two years ago, the Palmyra-Eagle school board said declining enrollment and a failed tax referendum made dissolution the only viable option.

The state appointed a committee of school board members from other areas to decide. That committee denied the dissolution, saying the district could try other cost-saving measures.

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Palmyra-Eagle high school students testified to the state-appointed boundary appeal board in November 2019. In January 2020, the boundary appeal board denied the district's petition to the dissolve.

New people took over the Palmyra school board and the administration and made many of those changes.

Todd Gray, a retired Waukesha superintendent, is now Palmyra-Eagle’s part-time administrator. He said the financial situation was not as bad as previous leaders thought.

"Based on what I’ve seen, the research I’ve done looking at the past few years, maybe six years of looking at their financials, I’m surprised they went right to dissolution without looking at some of the necessary reductions and cuts that needed to be made," Gray said.

Gray said the district is right-sized now and has built a healthy fund balance.

Like schools across the county, the district is receiving federal COVID relief money, but Gray said none of that has been spent on plugging budget holes.

Wisconsin Rural School Alliance Director Kim Kaukl said other rural Wisconsin districts have been forced to make painful decisions to stay afloat, like closing schools and laying off staff.

"There's a lot of districts that are on the precipice where one little glitch could send them in that direction like what happened with Palmyra-Eagle, with declining enrollments," Kaukl said. "They've had to make some very tough decisions."

Kaukl said tight funding has also prompted creativity in rural districts. One example is the Trempealeau Valley Cooperative, a group of four small districts that share career and technical education teachers.

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A "Panther Nation" sign is displayed in a window at Eagle Elementary School.

At the end of the school day at Eagle Elementary, parents line up in cars to pick up students. Eagle resident Marie Sackett, waiting for her nine-year-old daughter, is grateful the district is still standing.

"Mostly we like the smaller-town feel, less kids, more one-on-one attention," Sackett said. "Yeah, good morals and good ethical upbringing in a smaller town school district, we just felt."

The small, family feel of the Palmyra-Eagle district is what leaders want to sell to families going forward, with the hope that they can curb enrollment declines and never look toward dissolution again.

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