BESSEMER - The Bessemer Area School District's Board of Education went into closed session for about 45 minutes at its meeting Tuesday to discuss personnel issues.
Board member Bill McDonald was arrested last week by Michigan State Police on three counts of misdemeanor warrants for aiding and abetting in the fraudulent signing of voter petitions that were circulated regarding consolidating the school with nearby Wakefield-Marenisco.
Following the closed session, board member Dave Osier read a statement that acted as a motion, which the board approved unanimously.
"In light of the fact that Michigan law requires that we act as a board and only take action collectively, I am concerned regarding the community's interpretation of recent actions of Bill McDonald, a single member of our board," Osier said. "In light of those concerns, I move as follows: That the actions of a single member of this board are not the actions of this board of trustees; that the community and its members be placed on notice that, unless specifically authorized by motion of this board, an individual trustee of this board holds the power of, and expresses his or her opinion as, an individual community member, and that such individuals should not be construed as the opinions of the board of trustees."
Because board members are elected officials, the board cannot take any action legally, except in the event of a felony being committed.
During the meeting's public comment a number of community members expressed disappointment with perceived inaction of the board, disapproval of certain members and uncertainty of the future.
Because the petitions to put consolidation on the public ballot did not include specific language on any millage that would fund the consolidated district, there would be no operating millage when consolidation goes into effect.
One member of the audience noted that without an operating millage the district wouldn't receive state aid.
If consolidation is approved, a separate vote would be needed before a current non-homestead 18 mill tax can be redirected toward the new district because the petitions circulated did not include language addressing the issue.
"The 18 mills is a non-homestead tax," McDonald said. "It is a tax on Lake Gogebic mansions. That's all it is. It has nothing to do with the regular 6 mills that we already got."
The 18 mills is currently being paid by business owners and others in the area, said Chris Bergquist, business manager at BAS.
"So right now unless you own a business, a commercial or non-homestead, we are not paying 18 mills," she said. "And in a consolidated district, we would still not pay 18 mills. The 18 mills is non-homestead. It is a voted millage and in Bessemer's case it's for 10 years, so we vote on it every 10 years."
Bergquist said the vote on the 18 mills would take place in 2019.
"We will have to have a separate vote at some point down the road for those 18 mills," she said. "There is no guarantee that it will pass."
If consolidation occurs and the vote for the non-homestead 18 mills failed, the school district could face financial burdens and eventually be controlled by the state.
For school districts that are operating at a deficit or failing academically, a person appointed by the state can assume control over that district, said Dave Radovich, BAS district administrator.
"If a district gets in an operating deficit over a timeline, the state will assign a manager to study; and they actually come in to recommend to layoff staff, or cut staff or programs to bring that school out of deficit," Radovich said. "We're not in deficit spending, Wakefield is not in deficit spending (and) academics are strong in both districts."
Declining populations and potential taxpayers for school districts is a concern of McDonald's.
"The numbers are going down in this county big time," McDonald said. "We're at 1,680 total students from Ironwood to Watersmeet. We are losing students."
According to the U.S. Census, the population estimate in 2013 for Gogebic County was 15,916, a drop of about 3.1 percent from 2010. The estimate is down by about 8.4 percent from 2000's population of 17,370.
Board member Kim Wright said he was in favor of studying consolidation.
"My position on consolidation is and has been, up until now, something that we need to study," he said. "I don't know where the study's going to go, I don't know it its right, wrong, what we're going to save, what we're going to lose, whether it was worth it or not, I don't know. but we have two months to study the issue before the vote."