Across the nation, hundreds of school districts are trapped in a death spiral of declining enrollment that forces dramatic budget cuts which then trigger more student departures.
State officials, who have the power to merge or dissolve districts to create more financially stable systems, are often reluctant to interfere in a process that can raise issues of class and race and brims with emotional implications for how communities define themselves.
In Wisconsin right now, there are deep anxieties in the legislature about a dissolution process that went awry after residents in Palmyra-Eagle, a rural district near Milwaukee in fiscal distress, repeatedly voted to dissolve the district but were rebuffed by an appointed panel controlled by the state school boards association.
The district now faces severe layoffs this summer after more than 100 students, unsure of the district’s fate, enrolled in surrounding districts.
“This has created a bit of an uproar in Madison,” said CJ Szafir, the vice president of the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, an influential conservative think tank in Milwaukee. “We know there needs to be more district efficiency. The question for us is if the state should take a carrots or sticks approach to this.”