Board votes not to dissolve Palmyra-Eagle School District

Students and school advocates express relief, but challenges remain

Bailey LeRoy and her mother, Tara LeRoy, participated in a march on the Capitol in June to publicize the funding needs of the state's schools. Bailey is a fifth grader at Palmyra-Eagle Elementary, which has been threatened with closure because of lack of funds. (Photo courtesy of Tara LeRoy.)

On Thursday the School District Boundary Appeals Board voted 6-to-1 to deny a proposal to dissolve the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District.

But what happens next is up in the air. The financial problems that triggered the original vote to dissolve the district have not been solved.

The appeals board vote was big news for the small, rural community, which has been struggling with the possible loss of its schools ever since the Palmyra-Eagle school board voted to dissolve its entire school district due to a lack of funds after an $11.5 million referendum failed last April.

Tara LeRoy, a district parent who has dedicated much of the last year to trying to save the schools, says she was moved by the relief on the faces of students when the board announced its decision on Thursday. “The junior class would have been hit the worst—they didn’t want to be pulled away for their senior year,” she says. “When you see teenage boys crying and clapping and showing that level of emotion … so many of us take school for granted. And then you are faced with losing something you never thought you would lose.”

The six local school officials from around the state who sit on the Boundary Appeals Board all voted against dissolving the district. The one member designated by Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor, David Carlson, voted to affirm the decision to dissolve.

Stanford Taylor issued a statement in response to the vote, supporting her designee’s position.

‘No perfect answer’

“Faced with a question that had no perfect answer, the seven-member group heard hours of passionate testimony from people whose lives will be impacted,” the superintendent said in the statement. In the end, she stated, her designee was correct to back the board’s decision to dissolve the district,  since “[the school] board’s majority laid out the reasoning for their decision in the motion they passed. Each board member based their decision on what they believed was in the best interest of the educational welfare of all area students.”

LeRoy says she was surprised and disappointed by the superintendent’s position and her designee’s vote. 

LeRoy and a team of allies who fought to keep the schools open presented a plan to the Boundary Appeals Board that included ideas for saving money by selling a school building, sharing staff with neighboring districts, and some “out of the box” ideas including going to a four-day school week.

‘Working very hard on forcing some resignations’

In April, LeRoy and her allies are running for three open seats on the seven-member local school board. And, she adds, “We’re also working very hard on forcing some resignations.” If the school board president and other members who voted to dissolved the district step down, as LeRoy expects, her group has more potential candidates ready to run.

LeRoy’s energy and ideas helped win over the Boundary Appeals Board, says Heather DuBois Bourenane, director of the Wisconsin Public Education Network.

“I think it’s remarkable what Tara and her team were able to do,” DuBois Bourenane says. “They pulled together a full slate of candidates to run for school board this spring who are ready to step up and lead even if the entire board resigns.”

Still, the challenges facing the district are daunting.

“The decision to dissolve and put the fate of the district in the hands of the state was rejected,” DuBois Bourenane says. “So now they have to figure out how to do this without additional funds. It’s going to be really challenging.”

Districts left on their own

For other districts, DuBois Bourenane said, the lesson of Palmyra is that “districts are left to their own devices in trying to figure out how to make the most of bad financial situations.” 

Building relationships and sharing resources with neighboring school districts will be key, says LeRoy. “We’ve learned we’re all in a pretty tipsy environment, and it wouldn’t take much for a district to go under.”

As it gets harder to beg local taxpayers for more school funding, “We’ll have to actively pursue funding and financial backing from people who want to sustain the schools, instead of trying to force it out of people who don’t,” says LeRoy. Among her creative ideas for the small, rural district is an equine therapy program that could attract more students.

At least until the next biennial budget, there will be no helping hand offered by the state.

A bill currently making its way through the State Legislature would make it harder for school boards to go to referendum. Under the bill, which Assembly Speaker Robin Vos has said he supports, school-funding referenda could only be on the ballot on previously scheduled election days, and could not be on the ballot again for a full year if they failed to pass.

‘What’s new is a feeling of hope’

“There’s a lot of uncertainty right now,” says DuBois Bourenane, “but that uncertainty is nothing new after an exhausting year of frustrations and unknowns.”

“What’s new,” she adds, “is a feeling of hope. I’m thrilled for the kids of Palmyra-Eagle, who now know with certainty that they’ll be in their regular school next year.”

Palmyra-Eagle has become a symbol of the plight of rural schools throughout the state. Last summer, public school advocates from around the state marched the 60 miles from Palmyra to the State Capitol to protest a lean state budget that has forced districts to go to local taxpayers over and over seeking funds to keep their schools afloat. 

The sheer nastiness of the battle between locals who resisted property-tax hikes and school kids who were distraught over the prospect of losing their school troubled community members.  

In Palmyra-Eagle, says LeRoy, “kids were forced to be in the middle of a civil war in the community.”

“One side was saying ‘children are worth the investment, and we need to give them what they need.’ And then you had others saying, ‘No, they have enough,’ and it’s all about taxes.”

“Kids shouldn’t be made to feel that people are fighting because of them,” she says, adding that she is proud of how they handled it. “They have faced things that no other kids in the state have, and they shone brightly and stood up tall.”

The order from the School District Boundary Appeals Board (SDBAB) will be filed on January 15. Under state statute, “Any person aggrieved by an order of the SDBAB may appeal the order to a circuit court within 30 days after copies of the SDBAB dissolution orders are filed.”

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.