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State education board flips off voters

Empower Wisconsin | Jan. 13, 2020

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — A state education board last week killed the will of the people when it voted against dissolving the financially troubled Palmyra-Eagle Area School District.

So where do the majority of the district’ voters go to get their democracy back? Here’s where the courts could come in.

On Thursday, the School District Boundary Appeal Board (SDBAB) voted 6-1 to deny the dissolution of the school district.

Panel members said they felt the process was rushed, but Palmyra-Eagle voters who sought to shut down the cash-strapped school district felt the fix was in.

The voters had spoken, twice rejecting ballot measures that would have kept the district operating.

Now, they feel betrayed.

While much of the opposition came from the village and town of Eagle, there were plenty of Palmyra area voters who also didn’t want to keep plugging taxpayer money into a sinking school district.

“It was not just the people from Eagle who were denied justice. I was raised and educated in Palmyra, and raised and educated both my children here and I voted against the revenue cap and for dissolution. There are others in Palmyra who did so as well,”  district resident Jean Beck told Empower Wisconsin. “It’s despicable that the majority opinion of this district was passed over by a board of individuals who are not at all impacted by the decision.”

The state board is made up of six members who represent local school boards across the state, and one designee of the superintendent of the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) The board is under the control of the DPI.

The SDBAB clearly listened to the objections of the minority, mostly residents in the Palmyra area who have spent the past several weeks lobbying support to keep the district open.

“This unelected, unaccountable board is defying the will of the voters. Apparently votes don’t mean anything. What good is democracy at this point?” said state Rep. Cody Horlacher (R-Mukwonago), whose legislative district includes the Palmyra-Eagle Area School District.

Horlacher has expressed concerns that local taxpayers will be forced to cough up more cash to keep operational a school district buried in millions of dollars of debt. Horlacher also wonders whether the state Legislature or DPI will be asked to save the day with statewide taxpayer dollars.

“It’s a mess. We’re still looking at all the options,” he said.

The Palmyra-Eagle Area School Board will have to find money somewhere to meet what they have long claimed to be a funding shortfall.

“Any possible changes in school district tax levies are the responsibility of the Palmyra-Eagle Board,” said DPI spokesman Chris Bucher, in an email. He distanced the agency from the board’s vote. 

Kelsey McKenzie, of Eagle, believes the state board’s decision was a means to ‘kick the can down the road.’

“I think the board members know that the district is in bad shape but they did not want to affirm dissolution and then be tasked with figuring out the logistics,” she told Empower Wisconsin. “The easiest option for them instead is to simply deny dissolution and walk away.”

District residents “aggrieved by the order” may file an appeal with their circuit court within 30 days after the state board files its decision, according to Bucher.

Matt Lepperd, a member of residents leading the campaign to dissolve the district, said dissolution supporters will appeal.

McKenzie said the board made an “emotional decision’ that will cost the school district and its residents more than money long-term.

“(I)t has created a divide in the Palmyra and Eagle communities that will likely never be repaired at this point,” she said. “The financial mismanagement of this district has pinned two communities against one another when it is not personal.”

“This decision will only create a further divide as two communities that no longer want to be together are forced to be joined, and only greater conflict and animosity will arise when we are forced to do this once again next year.”

 

 

 

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