An advisory referendum on whether the rural Palmyra-Eagle Area School District should dissolve shows how divided the community is on the issue – and the dramatic difference in opinion between the towns of Palmyra and Eagle.
More than 2,000 residents voted in the election. According to unofficial results, 53% cast ballots in favor of the district shuttering its doors. In the town and village of Palmyra, 73% of voters were against the district dissolving. In the town and village of Eagle, 74% supported dissolution.
"It's always Palmyra against Eagle," said Palmyra resident Richard Pausch as he left the polls Tuesday. "I don't know why two cities can't get along."
The school district has been struggling financially for years. It has been dealing with what School Board President Scott Hoff calls "the perfect storm": declining enrollment and Wisconsin's restrictive education funding rules.
Not only is the number of school-aged children in Palmyra-Eagle shrinking, but the district loses hundreds of students to other districts through open enrollment. This year, with the pending dissolution, 40% of Palmyra-Eagle resident students are open enrolling in other districts. Last year, it was 31%.
Again, the picture is different depending on the town. In Palmyra, most families send their kids to the local schools. In Eagle, about half of students open enroll in the much larger Mukwonago District.
Palmyra-Eagle has tried repeatedly to balance its budget by asking voters to increase property taxes. The most recent attempt – an $11 million referendum in April – failed. The district is already $12 million in debt, so the school board decided it had no choice but to dissolve.
"There's been a lot of tears this past year in our community," said Palmyra resident Tara LeRoy. She has two kids in the district and is a vocal supporter. "We moved here from Idaho to move back to where my husband graduated high school. To put our kids in a small school, to have those relationships and that community trust and camaraderie and all those things you get from a rural community."
But many residents, especially in Eagle, feel the school district has mismanaged its budget.
"The student body is shrinking, the school district didn't adjust to that," said Eagle resident Shelley Elmblad. "They could have condensed more and saved some money. Maybe reached out more to the parents who open enrolled their children out to find out what's going wrong."
Elmblad says her faith in the Palmyra-Eagle schools has also been damaged by her own daughter's difficult experience there.
Current Palmyra-Eagle students are struggling to come to terms with the fact that they might have to go to another school district next year.
"At this small school, we get one-on-one attention with the teachers," said high school junior Kazi Beth. "It's really nice that they know you by first name. And it's just really nice that we have a close bond … It really is like a family."
Beth says students feel mostly powerless as adults in the community take votes and discuss what to do about the financially struggling schools.
"We want to just graduate from the school we've been going to our whole lives," Beth said. "It'd really stink to have to switch our senior year."
If Palmyra-Eagle were to dissolve, the students would be absorbed into surrounding districts in a configuration to be determined. Two neighboring districts – Mukwonago and Whitewater – have proposed dividing the district between them if it dissolves.
That decision is in the hands of a state-appointed School District Boundary Appeal Board, made up of six representatives from other school districts and one Department of Public Instruction appointee. Its first meeting is Thursday at Palmyra-Eagle High School. The deadline to make a decision is Jan. 15.
Dan Rossmiller, with the Wisconsin Association of School Boards, says other districts will be watching. He says declining enrollment, combined with the state's restrictive funding system, means more and more public schools are reliant on voter referendums to break even.
"The Palmyra-Eagle situation is like the canary in the coal mine for school districts," Rossmiller said. "Many school districts are one failed referendum away from dissolving."
Only two other Wisconsin school districts have pursued dissolution. Both were saved by tax referendums. That's not the case in Palmyra-Eagle, which leaves no clues for students who are wondering if their schools will be open next year.
Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.