BENTON HARBOR — The future of Benton Harbor Area Schools is, in part, in the hands of the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.
Superintendent/CEO Bob Herrera read from an email Tuesday during his monthly CEO meeting, to explain the situation: “(The Michigan Department of Education is) waiting for direction from the attorney general’s office regarding the status of the School Reform Officer with respect to the elimination of 1280c on June 30, 2019. When we receive this information from the AG, we will address the Benton Harbor cooperative agreement.”
Herrera received the email earlier in the day from MDE officials.
Section 1280c is the part of Michigan’s Revised School Code that created the SRO in 2010 to hold schools accountable for student achievement. If no action is taken, it will be repealed June 30 because of a new law signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder on Dec. 28 after it was approved in a lame-duck legislative session.
Benton Harbor school board trustees hired Herrera as CEO and approved the cooperative agreement with the state in June 2018 under Section 1280c. In doing so, they agreed to take an advisory role in all matters, except with regard to taxes and long-term borrowing.
With the SRO possibly going away, Herrera said there is a good chance that the district will revert back to local control, with him then becoming a traditional superintendent.
After the meeting, when asked if he will stay with the school district if it reverts back to local control, he said he needs to wait and see.
“I don’t know how these decisions will be made,” he said. “If I knew how the decision was going to be made, I could probably give you a better answer to everything. But you see we don’t even know how the decision is going to be made.”
Part of the issue is that Benton Harbor Area Schools is the only school district with a CEO. The bigger question the AG will be deciding relates to the new A to F accountability system. The new law mandates that the Department of Education put this together by Aug. 1 and implement it by Sept. 1. Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles sent a letter to members of the Michigan Senate on Dec. 18 shortly before they voted, stating that parts of the proposed law violate federal law.
In addition, she said that the department is two years into implementing Michigan’s federally-approved Every Child Succeeds Act, with the first year spent receiving stakeholder input, before the plan was approved in November 2017 by the U.S. Department of Education. She said the new law would disrupt implementation of that approved plan and does not give them enough time to put a new plan together.
“The AG’s going to finally give a ruling, and then somebody is going to have to figure out the application of that to the district and what that actually looks like,” Herrera said.
The district had been under a consent agreement with the Michigan Department of Treasury since 2014 because of its high debt, and under a partnership agreement since April 2017 because of its poor student performance on state standardized testing. But the partnership agreement went away in June 2018 when the cooperative agreement was signed. And the treasury department released the district from the consent agreement in November.
Herrera said if the cooperative agreement also goes away, that would leave the district with very little state oversight, which he doubts will happen.
“My instinct is that they’re not just going to let Benton Harbor go back to self governance completely,” he said.
Part of the reason is because of the district’s high debt, which he said is $16.5 million. Of that, $4.5 million is short-term debt and $12 million is long-term debt.
While state officials are figuring out what the new law means, Herrera said he is bringing school board trustees up to speed about what’s going on in the district so they are prepared to take over. He said some major changes are going to have to be made for the district to survive.
“There are several possible scenarios to get the district out of the debt based on shared services, charters, mergers, consolidations,” he said. “... I haven’t even begun to explore all those and talk to the board about them, but we are going to begin to work on that because we have to. That may be an option. I have to at least do my due diligence and be ready to respond to the board about every one of those scenarios.”
He said the options are listed under section 380.12 of the Revised School Code, which deals with what happens if a school district is dissolved.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege