MADISON – A state appeals board Thursday unanimously denied a request by owners of a 149-acre legacy farm in the town of St. Joseph to detach from the Somerset School District and join the Hudson School District.

The three-member panel, who are school board members in Superior, Sun Prairie and Gillett, found no compelling reason to grant the Edward and Joyce Frawley Living Trust’s request to overturn Somerset’s denial of their petition to detach from the district.

No Frawley family member has lived on the farm for years and the property along 144th Avenue, assessed at $425,000, generates about $1,450 in annual school taxes. For the past 25 years, the property has been enrolled in the state’s Managed Forest Land Program, which encourages sustainable forestry practices on private land in exchange in exchange for reduced property taxes.

However, now there’s family interest in building a home on the property and sending children to school, but not to Somerset.

“Somerset is one of the worst and Hudson is among the best” districts in the area, Mary Frawley told the Department of Public Instruction’s School District Boundary Appeals Board during the hour the Frawleys had to state their case.

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Frawley supported her conclusion with data and rankings from the DPI, US News & World Report, and other school ratings services. DPI scored Hudson above Somerset in math, English Language Arts and overall student achievement. Other data showed that Hudson ranked above the state average in composite ACT scores and in advanced placement, and US News ranked Hudson ranked 36 out of 453 Wisconsin school districts while Somerset was ranked 141.

Property values

Being a part of the Hudson School District would make the Frawley property more valuable as school quality correlates with property values, Tim Frawley said.

After the new bridge opened at Stillwater, Minn., the Frawleys received some developer interest in their property but that interest died when developers learned it was in the Somerset district, Mary Frawley said.

State law specifies which criteria school boards and the Appeals Board use in ruling on petitions to detach from a school district, and the Frawleys said those also favor Hudson.

Those include: their property being closer to an elementary school in the Hudson district; it’s adjacent to the Hudson district on four sides, while it touches and Somerset district on only two sides; and the Somerset district’s boundaries are more irregular and contain numerous “islands” created by Somerset’s policy of opposing any detachment petition and approving every petition to attach, Mary Frawley said.

At the February meeting when the Somerset School Board denied the Frawley’s detachment petition, three other detachment petitions were on the agenda.

Somerset response

Somerset Superintendent Mark Bezak defended his district’s academic performance but didn’t want to get into a contest of “who’s better.”

“The DPI emphasizes not using report cards to compare districts. Our enrollment is about 1,500 and is stable, while Hudson has about 5,500 kids and its enrollment is declining,” Bezak said.

He accused the Frawleys of “cherry picking data” to make his district look worse than Hudson’s.

Instead, Somerset schools enjoy a great deal of community support as evidenced by passage of the largest referendum last year and first time it approved a referendum for operating expenses, he said.

The district has been able to finance school construction without a tax hike, something Hudson can’t say, he added.

School districts routinely oppose detachment because they don’t want to give up tax base, Bezak said. The Frawley property today isn’t a valuable as it will be in future as it’s in a “hot development area,”

While the Frawleys emphasized the Hudson’s better academic opportunities as reasons for detachment, the three-member panel didn’t. Instead, they all agreed that the Frawleys’ remedies were selling and moving to the Hudson district, electing a new school board or, using the Open Enrollment program to attend Hudson schools.

“The attempt to choose a school district based on academics, discipline and other factors the petitioners brought up, is addressed by the state of Wisconsin through open enrollment. You can argue its effectiveness and pitfalls but the ability of individual families to choose the best school for their children is done through open enrollment and not changing boundaries,” said Tom Weber, a Sun Prairie School Board member.

Dan Gerbers, of the Gillett, explained this vote saying,

“A lot of factors were brought up that we can’t use in our decision … . They are very personal to the parties involved and it becomes emotional issues and something we can’t base our decision on. If things are done that are not expected, it can’t be used in our decision. Correcting past wrongs is not something we can do,” he said.

After the hearing, Tim Frawley said that the relative quality of education between the two districts doesn’t appear to make a difference in these decisions, and that he was surprised that the panel members downplayed the relevance of the DPI data on school performance.

“If that data is not useful why is it there (on the DPI website)?” he said.

The Frawleys can appeal the panel’s decision to circuit court, an option they haven’t ruled out, he said.