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Bessemer-Ironwood consolidation petition circulates



Voters in the Bessemer and Ironwood area school districts may be deciding the future of their districts in August, as local residents are circulating a petition to put a proposal to consolidate the two districts on the ballot.

Those advocating for consolidation needed to first get permission from the Michigan Board of Education, according to Gogebic County Clerk Gerry Pelissero, getting at least 10 eligible voter signatures from each school district.

Pelissero said he was informed the state gave its approval Jan. 13.

“Since the school boards themselves have not placed a consolidation question in front of the voters, the petitions can then be circulated by people within the school districts,” Pelissero told the Daily Globe.

To put an item on the ballot, petitioners are required to get signatures from 5 percent of the registered voters in each district, which Pelissero said translates to 140 signatures in the Bessemer district and 359 signatures in Ironwood.

They have 60 days, or until March 17, to get the required numbers.

“At that point, I verify that the true petition — which is what they are circulating — was signed by the minimum in each school district,” Pelissero said.

Any invalid signatures are removed from the totals, but valid signatures would remain, according to Pelissero.

“An entire petition is not thrown out, but names on that petition would be,” he said.

If everything passes muster, Pelissero said the question would be placed on the August ballot, as it is “the next available election date.”

The costs for the election are borne by the districts, not the petitioners, he said.

While he needs to clarify with the state how the language would appear on the ballot, Pelissero said there is a possibility that voters would decide two questions — one determining consolidation and the other transferring the tax revenue to the new district.

“If they just do the school district consolidation question, there’s no funding mechanism for that first year,” he explained.

Any ballot measure will have to carry the day in both communities to be successful.

“It has to be approved within each school district,” Pelissero said, referencing a previous consolidation vote that passed in Ironwood but failed in Bessemer and Wakefield-Marenisco — killing that attempt.

While the petitioners likely have different reasons for attempting to send the issue to voters, for Ironwood resident Ken Jacobson it’s more a matter of finality than a feeling on whether the proposal is a good or bad idea.

“I’d like to see it on the ballot. You hear so much (about the issue), depending on who’s talking,” Jacobson said. “(A ballot measure) would be one way to resolve it — have people discuss it and if the people want to do it, fine; and if they don’t, well there’s your answer.”

Ultimately, Jacobson said he wants what is best for the students.

“Whatever is good for the kids,” Jacobson said. “I don’t have a horse in the race; but if it’s good for the kids then it’s good for the kids.”

While Jacobson may not have a preference on the issue, having attended the Erwin school — which later consolidated with Ironwood and Ironwood Township to form the Ironwood Area Schools — he did say the area’s decreasing population may make the consolidation inevitable at some point in the future.

While neither district is involved in the effort, they take very different views on the possibility of consolidating.

Bessemer Superintendent Dave Radovich said the district is pursuing a bond to renovate A.D. Johnston so it can serve as a K-12 building.

“We’re going to keep moving forward with our referendum planned in May,” Radovich said.

The bond question will be determined in the May 2 election, according to Pelissero, and is the only issue on the ballot.

According to the ballot language, the district is looking to raise an amount not to exceed $6,940,000 over the maximum 28-year life of the bonds.

The millage would consist of an estimated 4.7 mills in 2017, or $4.70 taxed on every $1,000 of taxable value; with the average millage rate expected to be 5.55 mills over the course of the bond — meaning $5.55 paid on every $1,000 of taxable value.

Not only has the district’s board voted unanimously not to consolidate, Radovich said putting consolidation on the ballot has been tried before and has either failed to get the required signatures or been rejected by voters.

He also asked voters to confirm the facts before casting their ballots.

“The only thing I caution people is that, with that petition, there are a lot of things being said that are not true or factual. People are being told things that are not factual at all,” he said.

Radovich also disputed the amount of money available from the state to help with consolidation, saying it was not only lower than some of the figures he has heard, but that it’s a competitive grant intended more for legal fees and other transition costs rather than new buildings or large-scale projects.

The Ironwood Area Schools continues to support the prospect of consolidation, with its board previously voting to explore the issue with Bessemer.

“The Ironwood Area Schools has proactively wanted to pursue consolidation of our local districts,” Ironwood Superintendent Tim Kolesar said. “From my own personal viewpoint, consolidation is one way for us to make sure all the students on the Gogebic Range can have a quality education leading to being college and career ready.”

He said he feels combining resources and personnel could only lead to good things.

Kolesar estimated that if the effort to get the issue on the ballot was successful, and voters passed it, it would likely take at least a year for the districts to actually consolidate.


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