Palmyra residents fight to save their school district

By: - September 9, 2019 10:42 pm
sign outside school slated for closure: proudly educating panthers since 1896:

Sign outside Palmyra-Eagle school slated for closure (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Last Friday at noon, Tara LeRoy walked into the school district office at the back of the Palmyra-Eagle High School, to turn in petitions with 680 signatures from community members who do not want to see their school district dissolved and their local schools closed permanently at the end of the current school year.

A TV crew from WISN 12 News covered the petition drop, which took only a few minutes.

The Palmyra-Eagle school board voted to dissolve its entire school district due to a lack of funds after an April referendum failed. The referendum asked residents if they wanted to tax themselves $11.5 million over four years to keep the schools open.

Tara LeRoy drops off petitions for a new referendum at the Palmyra-Eagle School District office (photo courtesy of WPEN)
Tara LeRoy and friends drop off petitions at the Palmyra-Eagle School District office (photo courtesy of WPEN)

The petition, turned in Friday, seeks a new referendum. It would ask the voters “point-blank whether they want to see the district dissolved,” says LeRoy, without a specific funding amount stated in the referendum.

Last July, Palmyra was the kick-off point for a 60-mile march to the Capitol, organized by the Wisconsin Public Education Network to highlight the tenuous situation faced by public schools across the state. Many districts struggling with shrinking budgets have had to turn to local taxpayers to try to make up for the shortfall. In Palmyra, local taxpayers said no.

A divided community

Some people who voted against the Palmyra funding referendum last April didn’t believe that if it failed the district’s two elementary schools and combined middle school and high school would close, LeRoy says. She and roughly 65 other community members met and decided to gather signatures for the new referendum as a last-ditch effort to save the district’s schools.

photo of school activist Tara LeRoy outside the Palmyra-Eagle School District office
Tara LeRoy outside the Palmyra-Eagle School District office

“We did have voters who signed our petition who told us they couldn’t afford a substantial tax increase, but they didn’t want the district to go away,” LeRoy says.

Matt Lepperd, a leader of the “no” voters, who started the Eagle Wisconsin Taxpayers Facebook group, does not buy the idea that people who voted no might have changed their minds.

 “OH NO!!! we had NO IDEA that a no vote meant dissolving the district!!” BULLSHIT,” Lepperd posted on the group’s page. 

“This was about dissolving and nothing but. Over fund or board it up…that was THEIR idea, not ours. We were given two choices…and we chose wisely,” he wrote in another post.

The issue of school funding has been painfully divisive for the community.

“We have kids in tears who are losing their favorite teachers, trying to donate their piggy banks to keep the school open,” LeRoy says. “This just shouldn’t happen.”

‘It makes my heart hurt’

The Eagle Taxpayers page has a disclaimer at the top:  “Due to the emotionally charged nature of the referendum outcome, we have decided to not allow students on the page. It is not our intent to fuel outrage or heartbreak, only to provide the communities taxpayers with facts.”

“It literally makes my heart hurt,” says Josie Kysely, a junior at Palmyra-Eagle. “My grade is kind of going through it the worst. Not being able to graduate at the school I’ve been going to for ten years just blows my mind,” she says.

Among the things Kysely likes best about her school are the sense of community and the individual attention from teachers: “Since we’re such a small school, everyone knows everyone. You’re really not a number. I really love that.”

Carrie Fischer, a parent from the neighboring Jefferson school district, says she is bothered by the Palmyra-Eagle school district’s dissolution, as well as by the hostile response of community members who don’t want their taxes to go up to pay for the schools. She’s also concerned about students being bussed to Jefferson into her district’s already-crowded schools.

Jefferson has passed its own school district funding referenda, and Fischer says her son is worried each time about losing teachers, his band program and other extracurriculars. 

“My son still has a school to go to every day,” Fischer says. “But adding more kids to his already full classes, and uprooting those kids from their environment, and making them spend a long time on the bus … what’s that’s going to do to them? It indirectly impacts so many school districts.”

The Palmyra-Eagle district received five stars, the state’s highest performance rating, but has been struggling with declining enrollment and low property values for years. 

Palmyra-Eagle sports fields (photo by Ruth Conniff)
Palmyra-Eagle sports fields (photo by Ruth Conniff)

The combined middle/high school, with its football stadium, modern buildings and well-maintained grounds, does not look like a distressed facility. 

Dr. Steven Bloom, the district administrator for the Palymra-Eagle area schools, says he doesn’t know what would happen to the buildings at the end of the year. 

“It’s in the state’s hands,” he says. “My role is to manage the process.”


An uncertain future

After the referendum, the state’s School District Boundary Appeals Board (SDBAB), comprised of six members from school districts around the state, as well as the State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor or someone she chooses, will evaluate the case. The board could reject the decision by the district to dissolve or draw new district boundaries and send Palmyra’s children to schools in other towns. 

The state’s Department of Public Instruction “has a role of providing advice and support to the seven members of the SDBAB, at their direction, as they do their work,” DPI communications officer Benson Gardner told Wisconsin Examiner in an email. The board, he wrote, should consider all appropriate factors when assessing the effect of the reorganization on the educational welfare of all the children residing in all of the affected school districts.”

Dr. Steven Bloom, district administrator for the Palmyra-Eagle School District, in his office
Dr. Steven Bloom, district administrator for the Palmyra-Eagle School District, in his office (photo by Ruth Conniff)

Dressed in a purple Palmyra/Eagle jersey, sitting in his office in the high school, Bloom declined to comment on the emotional toll the news about the school’s potential closure has had on students and staff.

“Our faculty and staff are dedicated to offering our kids an outstanding year,” Bloom said. “Granted, it’s an atypical year with an uncertain future.”

The potential consequences of the April referendum should have been clear to voters, he added: ”Our board was very clear that these things could potentially happen. That information was very transparent and readily available. The public spoke in April. It’s up to the boundary appeals board what happens next.”

Bloom sounded skeptical about the chances that a new referendum would change the district’s fate: “Even if there were a favorable result, there’s still no money attached.” 

LeRoy was more hopeful that the school district could be saved. But, she added, “even if we can’t physically save our district and our community now, we can let it be known there’s a dire situation with education funding. It’s not OK to close schools.”

The 680 petition signatures LeRoy delivered to the district office exceeded the minimum of 403 required by law, or 10% of turnout in the 2018 governor’s race, required to trigger a referendum.

“The only thing we ask voters, ‘Do you want to pay more taxes?’ for is educating our kids,” LeRoy said. “How stupid is that?”

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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.