March 25, 2014 | Vol. 95, No. 71

Consolidation issue heats up Bessemer school board meeting

BESSEMER - The Bessemer Area School District Board of Education held a contentious meeting Monday, debating the proposed bond issue with one board member.

Cortney Ofstad/Daily Globe
DAVE OSIER, from left, Sherri Graham and Al Gaiss, of the Bessemer Area School Board, listen to public comments Monday at A.D. Johnston School in Bessemer.

Bill McDonald, an outspoken opponent of the proposed bond referendum, was asked numerous questions by other board members about the consolidation committee he is a part of. The committee proposes to ask for the consolidation of Bessemer and Wakefield-Marenisco School districts on the ballot in August.

Bessemer superintendent Dave Radovich asked McDonald if he could extend an invitation to the committee to attend the school board's April meeting to discuss plans for the consolidation.

"If there is a plan, which I hope there is, we would like that to be shared," Radovich said. "We are not opposed to consolidation, but I feel that it is putting the cart before the horse. Consolidation could be the best thing since sliced bread, but we want to know the plan."

Radovich also expressed the need to pass a proposed referendum to make improvements to the A.D. Johnston School. The referendum is for $4.9 million, set for 19 years. It is on the ballot for the May 6 election.

McDonald, however, doesn't see the bond passing, after a bond for 25 years and nearly $1.8 million less failed on a previous attempt.

"It's going to go down," McDonald said.

However, Radovich said, "take it to the voters."

McDonald cited declining enrollment as the reason for needing consolidation. Radovich presented enrollment projections earlier in the year, saying Bessemer in five years will be up by 30 students.

"We had this done by a professional company, and we're dealing with facts," Radovich said. "Bill, you keep saying our enrollment will decline. Where are your facts?"

Board president Bob Berg presented a letter written by McDonald in the March 21 edition of the Daily Globe about the bond issue.

In the letter, McDonald said the Bessemer board has "another agenda," and wants taxpayers to approve its "highly questionable" bond proposal.

McDonald also said the board "wasn't doing its job." He said Bessemer residents have to cast two votes to make consolidation happen.

"The first is vote no on the bond proposal on May 6," McDonald said in the letter.

Berg and other board members said McDonald cannot tell people how to vote, as a board member.

"I have never seen a board get ripped by another member," Berg said. "Instead of focusing on things we need to be focusing on, we're spending 30 minutes every meeting fighting his (McDonald's) inaccuracies."

Staff members spoke about supporting the referendum, and having a Facebook page in support.

Some staff members expressed frustration.

"I'm sick and tired of these consolidation votes and not knowing if I'm going to have a job in August," teacher and teachers' union president Richard Matrella said.

Matrella asked McDonald about the consolidation committee's two-part plan listed on the website, with the first phase consolidating W-M and Bessemer, and the second phase consolidating every school in Gogebic and Ontonagon counties into two districts.

In the past, McDonald said Ironwood was not part of the conversation for consolidation, but Matrella pointed out the two-part plan said otherwise online.

After exchanging words, Matrella said the "only good thing about consolidation" is that McDonald would no longer be on the school board.

Other staff members said the bond needs to be talked about to "get the facts out there."

Board member Dave Osier also said there is a tax calculator on the school's website to estimate the yearly increase in taxes if the bond were to pass.

"I went on there and did mine, and it didn't hardly go up," Osier said. "To get $5 million for this school, I would pay triple what it is actually going to go up."

The board continued to extend the invitation to the consolidation committee and Bruce Mayle, superintendent of the Gogebic-Ontonagon Intermediate School District, to attend the meeting to discuss the consolidation and to "clear any misconceptions."