Emotions Stirred at Consolidation Meeting Thursday

WAKEFIELD, MI - Friday, October 17, 2008 - The "Project 149" Team (the name references the combined number of Spring 2009 graduates from Ironwood, Bessemer, and Wakefield-Marenisco schools) held a special public informational meeting at 6:00 PM yesterday evening at the Wakefield VFW Hall.  The "Project 149" Team was formed by a group of concerned citizens that believe the future of education in the area is heavily dependent on consolidation of the three Western Gogebic County School Districts. Members of the group include Bob and Annette Burchell, Ironwood; Mark and Denise Stephens, Bessemer; Scott Stephens, Ironwood; Gordon Schelde, Wakefield; and Jeffery Miller, MD, Wakefield.

Mark Stephens began the meeting by introducing the members of the "Project 149" Team and then describing what would happen should the consolidation proposal pass. He explained that the Team was able to gather 1,126 petition signatures from registered voters in the Ironwood, Bessemer and Wakefield-Marenisco school districts, allowing the proposal to be placed on the November 4, 2008 General Election ballot. Stephens told the attendees of the meeting that 5% of the voters needed to sign the petition from each school district in order for the proposal to make the ballot. The group ended up gathering nearly 10%.

According to Stephens, should the proposal pass, seven board members would be selected by the Gogebic-Ontonagon Intermediate School District (GOISD) to act as a "interim" board. The GOISD has placed ads in area newspapers seeking people willing to serve as interim board members. Stephens said the interim board would officially begin operating the new consolidated district on November 14, 2008 (ten days following the election) and continue to do so until a new regular board is elected in the August 2009 school election. Stephens said the GOISD is seeking a mix of interim members that includes representatives from each of the districts involved.

Stephens went on to say that most people - whether the support the current proposal or not - realize that consolidation is eventually inevitable. Populations in the area are steadily dropping and individual school districts simply cannot survive independently. Stephens explained that the "Project 149" Team believes that now is the best time to move forward with consolidation. He cited figures from the table above as evidence that consolidation is the right thing to do. He pointed out that there were 196 graduates from all of the districts back in 1999. There will be approximately 149 this year, and according to projections, the combined graduates from all three districts will only be 107 in ten years.

Stephens then presented 2008 Michigan Merit Exam Test Scores for 11th Graders (Class of 2009) to the attendees of the meeting. He made it very clear that his intent in presenting the figures was not to be misinterpreted to insult or "pick on" area teachers, school districts,  or administrators. He was quick to point out that the figures are a direct result of funding deficiencies and not a reflection of the quality of education each of the districts provides.

Stephens did point out the the low scores should be a "wake-up" call to all area parents, educators, administrators, and community leaders. He also pointed out that Ewen-Trout Creek's Consolidated District scored above the State averages.

Stephens went on to explain what would happen as far as mileages and individual district debts. Bruce Mayle, Superintendent of the GOISD, along with the assistance of Beverly J. Boning, a representative of the Thrun Law Firm, P.C., (via cell phone) went into detail regarding the figures. To hear Ms. Bonning's explanation of the district debts and mileages, click the graphic below or [CLICK HERE].

GOISD Superintendent Brian Mayle gave an abbreviated summary of the flyer that was being handed out at the meeting. When he began to speak, several of the audience members gave objection. They believed there were things that needed to be said, and with only a one hour time-frame, they didn't believe there would be adequate time to do so. To read or print out the entire flyer [CLICK HERE].

Gay Gheller said, "Just before everybody gets asking questions... I don't have a question.... I just want to remind everybody why we're doing this. It's for the kids! I know it's not for the teachers, and the administration... and what building... and all that big deal. This is about our kids and our future! Again, I'll say it... we've been doing this since I was in the fifth grade. And we are still sitting here deciding whether we should consolidate or not! My daughter, who is 16-1/2 years old, has been in dance and AYSO Soccer, Barracuda Swim Team... It's all been a 'Gogebic Range Sport!' She knows kids from every area; she was born in Wakefield; I lived in Bessemer; she went to Bessemer schools; she's now in the Ironwood School District. She knows everybody. It's not the kids. The kids are over this whole identity issue. This is about being a 'Gogebic Range' whatever we are. It's not about Ironwood, Bessemer, or Wakefield! It's about a 'Gogebic Range' all together thing! Already done this! They're over that!" [02:17]

Several people in the audience voiced objections to the proposal. Many felt that it was unfair for Bessemer and Wakefield-Marenisco to be absorbing Ironwood's debt. Many were cautious because they believed that Ironwood, being the largest population center of the three, would be running everything. There were reservations about losing "school identity" and the right to choose schools.

Comments got heated and emotional. Many people spoke in support of the proposal. Some believe that the quality of education and the diversity of classes will improve. Comments were made regarding the dire need for quality education, and the suggestion was made that our current individual school districts -- mostly due to monetary restraints -- were unable to provide the students with the education they need.

Serena Mershon-Lohkamp gave a very emotional appeal in support of consolidation.

With tears in her eyes and a crackle in her voice Mershon-Lohkamp said, "This is my priority here!" As she held her young child in her arms, "I can't believe I'm getting worked up about this because it really matters to me! I moved here -- I really like living here. I've been here five years. This is my priority! All I hear is 'money, money, money' out there. Have you seen those scores? Oh my God! Okay, here's my answer to your money issues... I will move if our schools don't improve! And, I'm not alone. I'll take him away, and the ones that are coming, and I'll take my money somewhere else! The most important thing is the education for our children and that's solid! What's happening in our schools right now is not -- they're spread too thin! They cannot do what is best for our children."

Former Ironwood Area teacher Dick Matrella interrupted, "How do you know this? Have you been in the schools?"

Mershon-Lohkamp, who happens to be a Gogebic Community College Chemistry professor responded, "I teach at the College and I see what comes out of our schools! Yes, I have!"

Matrella continued by pointing out that a former Bessemer student is currently teaching mathematics at Harvard University. "Have you ever taught in the high school?" Matrella asked, "What I am saying is that we have students that refuse to learn; will not cooperate; and that's why we have test scores like this!"

Many in the crowd booed Matrella comments.

Mershon-Lohkamp responded, "You can't blame the students! Don't blame the students!"

Jim Collins stood up and addressed the crowd, "There's something I've noticed throughout all these conversations. Somewhere the kids get lost in the conversation. That's a fact. You can call me a liar if you want."

Collins went on to point out that many teachers, administrators and school board members from the three districts are from Ironwood. "And we can't get along?" He questioned, "What about the kids?"

He went on to say, the issue shouldn't be about the football team. According to Collins the most important issue should be the kids and the quality of their education.

To full appreciate the emotion and passion on both sides of this issue, this reporter highly recommends listening to the full audio of this meeting. To hear the entire meeting, please click the link below.