BENTON HARBOR — The Herrera era is over.

Benton Harbor school board trustees accepted the resignation Monday of Superintendent/CEO Bob Herrera, effective immediately. They appointed Patricia Robinson as the interim superintendent, pending approval of the state’s school reform officer. Robinson, an assistant superintendent, has served as the interim superintendent at least twice before.

The board still needs SRO approval for Robinson’s appointment because the cooperative agreement with the state doesn’t end until June 30, board Vice President Joseph Taylor explained.

Taylor said that in Herrera’s resignation, he turned all powers over to the board. Before that, trustees only had power to vote on issues regarding taxation and the borrowing of money. Herrera served as the superintendent/CEO for almost 11 months.

After Monday’s special meeting, board President Stephen Mitchell said having local control back is “awesome.”

“This is one thing, I think, that the community and the taxpayers and the parents needed – somewhere to take their battles to other than the state of Michigan,” he said. “Now they have a local face to put to a problem.”

Meanwhile, trustees are preparing to fight for the district’s existence Wednesday when they travel to Lansing to meet with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her staff. On May 24, the state gave trustees until June 7 to approve the state’s proposal to suspend operations at Benton Harbor High School so the struggling district could focus on K-8 education. If trustees don’t approve the plan, the entire district could be dissolved or chartered.

In exchange, state officials have verbally said that up to $11 million of the district’s $18.4 million debt could be wiped away, depending on how much transition money state legislators believed the district needed. This is not mentioned in the May 24 plan.

But residents have repeatedly said at town hall meetings that they want nothing to do with any plan that potentially closes the high school, even if it is temporary.

When Whitmer visited Benton Harbor last week to discuss the plan, she extended the deadline by one week to Friday to give trustees time to come up with a viable plan to keep the high school open.

At Monday’s special meeting, trustees approved sending an open letter to Whitmer detailing a plan they said strengthens the entire district while keeping the high school open.

This proposal, what the board calls the third option, in total reads:

• Continue to operate and strengthen the entire BHAS K-12 school district; keep the Benton Harbor High School open;

• Strong collaboration with the governor’s office and state and federal agencies;

• Accountability on all sides;

• Address each of the categories outlined in your Draft Plan of 5/24/19: academics and instruction, leadership, finances and student needs.

In addition, the board wrote, “We have TWO specific requests:

1. Please help us address the BHAS debt. (Your office mentioned this in your 5/24/19 Draft Plan but did not provide details.)

2. REQUEST TO MDE (Michigan Department of Education): we request your support for MDE to designate BHAS as a Critical Shortage Area which would allow BHAS to recruit from the retired teacher and administrator pool.”

Board Secretary Patricia Rush said trustees feel that they have a viable plan that will stabilize the district.

“We are grateful to the many good employees we have,” she said. “Great teachers, great staff, throughout the district.”

The open letter includes a list of current and future activities and commitments that board trustees said will get the district back on track. Some items on the list have already been put in place, such as the request to refinance the district’s five emergency loans from the state, which will save the district $300,000 in the 2019-20 school year.

Other items are to be done in the future, such as recruiting students over the summer to return to the district, which would increase the amount of money the district receives from the state. In addition, the board’s list includes partnering with Andrews University in Berrien Springs and Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo to help long-term substitute teachers become certified teachers.

Local control

When contacted by phone, Herrera said state School Reform Officer William Pearson felt that giving the board back local control rather than making the trustees wait until July 1 made sense. 

“The idea came about over the weekend and they confirmed it for me late this afternoon,” said Herrera, who is preparing to be the new superintendent of Farmington Public Schools on July 1.

When Herrera took over leading the school district in July 2018, he was expected to hold the job for at least four years. But changes in state law meant he would have reverted to being a traditional superintendent on July 1.

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