BENTON HARBOR — The Benton Harbor school district is set to start school this fall with no teacher vacancies.

That was the good news reported by Superintendent Andrae Townsel during the school board meeting Tuesday night.

“We are 100 percent staffed,” he said while giving a shout out to his staff for making it happen.

Over the last few years, the district has struggled to find and keep qualified teachers. At times, almost 50 percent of the classrooms were led by substitute teachers.

In addition, Townsel announced the first step in a four-phase plan to increase teacher pay.

“We will be returning half of the 10 percent pay cut to those teachers who have been in the district for 20 years or longer,” he said. “And we are granting half of the steps to the teachers who are more than six steps behind on the pay scale. This is just phase one.”

He said additional steps will be announced once district officials have a better grasp on student enrollment and funding levels from the state this fall.

Over the years, teachers have had their pay frozen and in 2012, they accepted the 10 percent pay cut to help the district balance its budget and avoid a state takeover. It was supposed to last for one year, but was never given back.

School board trustees also unanimously approved giving Townsel, who became superintendent in February, a vote of confidence for his leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trustees said that Townsel has created a team that is getting the job done while keeping the message positive.

“I knew we made the right decision when it came to choosing someone for their leadership qualities and the potential beyond a shadow of a doubt,” said board President Joseph Taylor.

Townsel said he can’t take all of the credit.

“I have an excellent team here,” he said. “We all are moving in one direction and to one heart beat. I love it. I thank you for that vote of confidence. I think that will give us more momentum to do some of this very, very difficult work of leading a school district, especially during this pandemic.”

Loan debt

During the meeting, trustees also approved asking the state to forgive its outstanding emergency loan debt, which is almost $11 million.

Chief Financial Officer Scott Johnson reported that the debt repayment from the general fund for the 2020-21 school year will be almost $777,000, which includes not only for the emergency loans, but for the Michigan Municipal Bond Authority loans and the state aid repayment.

He said the cost to service the district’s debt will gradually drop to about $560,000 over the next five years, and then will stay at that level for 21 years.

If the outstanding emergency loans are forgiven, he said the district’s debt service costs from the general fund will be reduced by about $275,000, to $560,000 per year, depending on the year.

Townsel said after the meeting that the resolution now goes to Michigan Department of Treasury officials, who are expected to forward it to state legislators.

“If we can get that forgiven, that’s more money we can invest in our students and educators,” he said.

During the meeting, Townsel also announced that Lowe’s has donated 1,000 N-95 masks to the district.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege