Finances spark Gwinn recall effort

MARQUETTE – Recall petitions filed against four Gwinn Area Community Schools Board of Education members reflect some of the community’s growing unrest with the board’s decision making and financial transparency, according to the Gwinn resident who filed the petitions.

Leesa Nordeen Misterly filed the recall petition paperwork for Board President Gloria Bigelow, Secretary Cindy Filizetti, and trustees Ron Libey and Michelle Dolby with the Marquette County Clerk’s office last week.

The Marquette County Election Commission is meeting from 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. May 8 to determine if the petition’s language is clear and factually correct. If the language is approved, at least 801 signatures will be needed within 60 days to force an election to fill the seats.

Misterly said she is acting as the spokesperson for a group of roughly 100 people who signed a petition asking for the recall just after the board’s April 15 meeting, in which it elected to close Gilbert Elementary School. The group also sent a letter to each board member, asking them to reverse their decision by April 22.

The full board has not discussed the school closure since April 15.

According to Misterly, the group was originally intending on running for three seats – those of Bigelow, Dolby and Libey – that are set to expire at the end of 2014. Filizetti’s term doesn’t expire until the end of 2016.

However, the closure of Gilbert Elementary spurred the group of dissatisfied community members into action sooner than planned.

“We knew, and the board members really kind of knew, that in the next election … there were a variety of new people who were planning to run for those positions, but in light of this $1.3, $1.4 million deficit – it kind of changes here or there – and the immediate closing of a school, we just decided we can’t wait any longer,” Misterly said. “This isn’t just about closing Gilbert. It is, in a sense, that they made a knee-jerk decision in a matter of five minutes to say, ‘We’re going to close Gilbert.’ It was ethically and morally irresponsible to a community as a whole. The school is a part of this community.”

Misterly said the board left the community with many unanswered questions after an April 12 budget work session in which it discussed adding a $23 million elementary wing onto the high school/middle school complex, allowing the district to close both K.I. Sawyer Elementary School and Gilbert. During construction of the new wing, Sawyer Elementary would have housed kindergarten and first grade, with the rest of the district’s elementary students attending Gilbert. The district could then shut down three quarters of Sawyer, saving on utility bills.

However, the board chose to close Gilbert after discovering the district had a quit-claim deed on the Sawyer property with conditional use provisions – including using the building only for educational purposes and using the building in its entirety.

If the district does not follow the provisions, it could lose the building or be forced to pay for an appraisal of the building before handing it back over to the federal government.

“That is one of the big reasons that we made that motion (to close Gilbert),” Bigelow said.

The decision was made with a 5-1 vote. Trustee Bill Nordeen cast the lone dissenting vote.

Misterly, who is Nordeen’s sister, said family ties played no part in the decision to file the recall petitions.

“(The Nordeens) have had students in this school system consistently for more than 30 years,” Misterly said “That’s why it becomes passionate to all of us.”

Misterly said the district’s lack of financial transparency concerning the closure of Gilbert has many in the community frustrated.

“We asked the board to step back, get their numbers out there, show us why they’re making the decisions they’re making and they chose not to do that,” Misterly said. “If the correct financial decision would be to stay at Sawyer, then most people would back that. The problem is we’re not so sure that it is.”

Bigelow said the recall petitions will likely hinder the board as it tackles a massive deficit in the coming weeks, but said she stands behind every vote she has cast in her time on the board.

“I don’t like the idea that we had to close Gilbert. My kids went to Gilbert. My grandkids went to Gilbert School, but when you’ve got a financial problem, you have to do something about it, and that – to me – was the most logical thing because it was smaller than Sawyer,” she said.

Gilbert Elementary has 10 less classrooms than Sawyer and cannot house all 575 elementary students within the district, according to GACS administration.

“I’m doing what’s best for the kids of the Gwinn district, because Gwinn encompasses Skandia, Sands, West Branch, Little Lake and Gwinn,” Bigelow said. “I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – Gilbert is a building. Sawyer is a building. Buildings to do not make schools. Schools are made by the education that goes on inside that building, and I firmly believe that.”

Misterly said another meeting has been scheduled for 6:30 p.m. today inside the Gwinn VFW to discuss the recall effort.

Jackie Stark can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 242.