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Published: Sunday, 8/2/2009

Feelings run high as trio on Mason Consolidated board face recall vote

BY MARK REITER
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Recalls of Sandra Dobbs, above left, Wynne Phillips, above right, and Kenneth Sieg, below left, are sought. Donald Pearce, below right, has resigned. Recalls of Sandra Dobbs, above left, Wynne Phillips, above right, and Kenneth Sieg, below left, are sought. Donald Pearce, below right, has resigned.
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ERIE - Melissa Turvey doesn't know what to think of the recall election that could result in half of the Mason Consolidated Board of Education being ousted.

As the mother of a 5-year-old girl who will enter kindergarten in about a month, Mrs. Turvey is concerned with the education that her daughter will receive in the Monroe County school district.

"I have no idea on how I will vote on the recall," the Erie Township resident said recently.

Voters in the school district will head to the polls Tuesday to decide the fate of board members Sandra Dobbs, Wynne Phillips, and Kenneth Sieg.

They and former board President Donald Pearce became the targets of an emotionally charged recall campaign because of board action that resulted in the firing of the middle school principal.

Mr. Pearce, also a target in the special recall election, resigned suddenly from the board three weeks ago.

The recall campaign has become ugly.

A recall organizer's car was vandalized during a board meeting, yard signs have been stolen, and allegations have been made that petitions for the recall were illegally circulated.

Mrs. Turvey, like many in the community, has found brochures about the recall campaign in her mailbox at home.

Literature distributed by the citizens' group Save Our Schools, which got the issue on the ballot, accuses school officials of cutting money from the budget for textbooks and school band programs and of threatening school employees who support the recall.

Mrs. Turvey, who also has three children 1 to 4 years old, said she hopes the board members are qualified and working to do what is best for students.

"I am concerned about the quality of education that kids are getting," she said.

The recall campaign began in earnest after the termination in March of Thomas McGarry, who had been an administrator and teacher for 34 years.

The recall election was certified for the ballot in early June after Save Our Schools gathered signatures on petitions from residents of the school district, which includes Erie Township and Luna Pier as well as portions of LaSalle and Bedford townships.

All three school officials targeted in the recall are accused of failing to follow "established district policy" in their vote to end a contract with a company called Good Marks for Schools, which had employed the principal since July, 2007. That vote resulted in Mr. McGarry's dismissal.

Good Marks for School covered Mr. McGarry's health-care benefits, saving the district about 11 percent of his salary costs.

He was the only administrator working for the district through Good Marks.

Michigan school districts sometimes use such an arrangement to save money.

Recall organizers also have accused Mr. Phillips and Mrs. Dobbs of approving the union contract for secretaries and food service employees without the input of the district business manager or legal counsel.

Mr. Phillips also is accused of having a conflict of interest in voting on the contract because his wife, an administrative assistant, is a member of the secretaries and food service union.

All three board members deny the allegations levied against them on the recall ballot.

In defense of his vote on the union contract, Mr. Phillips said he received a legal opinion from the Michigan Association of School Boards that stated his vote on the contract didn't violate any laws.

"When I got elected to the board one of the first things I did was go to the MASB for guidance because I didn't want any controversy," he said.

"I wanted to make sure I was doing the right thing."

Mr. Phillips said the board voted 7-0 against an earlier contract for the secretaries and food service workers union on the advice of the business manager and the interim superintendent.

Mr. Sieg, whose wife is a bus driver for the district, said the 5-2 vote that effectively ended Mr. McGarry's career with the school system came after his employer failed to respond to phone calls, letters, and e-mails.

"There were areas of concerns with [Mr. McGarry]. We were unable to remedy that because Good Marks for Schools failed to respond to us," Mr. Sieg said.

The board members said action was taken to break ties with Good Marks for Schools after Mr. McGarry allegedly made oral threats to Superintendent David Drewyor.

Mr. Sieg said they had no choice than to dissolve the contract with Good Marks immediately.

"No employee who makes threats, whether he or she is employed under a third-party contract or a regular employee, is going to maintain their employment with the school system," he said.

Mr. McGarry, 54, retired from the district in July, 2007, and began collecting his pension.

He denied that he threatened Mr. Drewyor and asserted that the board members targeted in the recall had been out to get him.

"This board has had an ax to grind for a very long time," he said.

"I think that it goes back a couple years. Sandy Dobbs doesn't care for me for whatever reason. It is something personal between Sandy Dobbs, and what that personal thing is, I can't tell you."

As the mother of a daughter who attends high school and son who graduated, she worked closely with the former principal when her children were younger and she was an officer in the PTA.

"There were no problems then," Mrs. Dobbs said.

"I don't know where he is coming up with this thing that I don't like him. I haven't always agreed with things that he has done. I haven't always agreed with the way he handled things."

Kay Axel, the mother of two boys who attend the elementary school, is among the leaders of the recall effort.

Vandals damaged her red Pontiac hard-top convertible with chemicals in May while she was attending a board meeting.

She said the reasons for the recall go beyond Mr. McGarry's termination and extend to the board's handling of district finances.

"The recall has to come through in order for this school district to survive. We cannot continue to operate in a deficit," she said.

"Changes have to be made, and the problem is that this board cannot be trusted to make those changes."

Mrs. Axel, a Luna Pier resident, claims that cuts made by the board have resulted in students having to share textbooks and study from outdated publications, and that increased fees for sports participation are hurting students.

Her group also accuses the board members of interfering in the day-to-day operations of the school system.

"That is not their role. Their role is to create and uphold policy and bylaws and hire and fire the superintendent," she said.

School officials have slashed nearly $1 million from the district's approximately $11 million budget since June, 2008.

Mr. Drewyor, who began the cost-cutting measures shortly after being hired in May, 2008, said the district is on course to finish the 2008-2009 fiscal year without dipping into its rainy-day fund.

"I doubt seriously if we are going to be in a deficit. That will be the third year in a row that the district hasn't been in a deficit," he said.

Mr. Drewyor, who is the district's fifth superintendent in three years, is projecting that without additional cuts the district will have a nearly $500,000 deficit for the upcoming school year.

"We are working on ways to reduce that number," he said.

"We are doing as good of a job as any school district in the state in dealing with funding problems."

The school officials targeted in the recall have accused Mrs. Axel's group of wrongdoing in collecting signatures on petitions to get the issue on the ballot.

Michigan State Police Sgt. David Meyer confirmed that an investigation into allegations that petition circulators acted illegally is under way and could be completed before the end of August. Any findings will be forwarded to the Monroe County Prosecutor's Office.

The Board of Education will interview candidates tomorrow to fill the vacancy created by Mr. Pearce's resignation. With 10 years of service, he had been the most experienced board member.

If school board members are removed in the election, the newly appointed member will join the board in choosing replacements.

Erie resident Jacki Clark applied to replace Mr. Pearce.

An unsuccessful candidate for school board in May, she feels she can make a positive impact on education if appointed.

She said she doesn't support the recall and accuses recall proponents of giving voters wrong information.

"It is destructive to the school district and the community. I support the board. I don't think they have done anything wrong," she said.

Board members Larry Guinn and Denise Gale, who are not targeted in the recall, have said they support their colleagues and have urged the community in a letter to vote against the recall.

"It is supposed to be about the students and children of the district. Instead, it has been more about adults acting like children," Mr. Guinn said.

Contact Mark Reiter at:

markreiter@theblade.com

or 419-724-6199.



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