BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor school supporters will not be alone Friday as they talk with officials from the Michigan Department of Treasury about how to deal with the district’s crushing debt.

New State Superintendent Michael Rice said he will be at the meeting, at 5 p.m. Friday in the Student Commons of Benton Harbor High School. It will bring together board trustees, and officials from the governor’s office, the treasury department, and state Department of Education.

Rice spoke with state Board of Education members in Lansing on Tuesday. 

Rice said signing the school district up for a new partnership agreement may not be the way to go.

“What triggers (partnership agreements) is academics,” said Rice. “The conversation now in Benton Harbor is overwhelmingly financial, not academic. ... For that reason, we are absolutely going to walk this walk with Benton Harbor Area Schools with the state treasurer. But the state treasurer, in my estimation, is the lead. It is first and foremost a financial issue. And secondarily an academic issue.”

The Benton Harbor district is $18.4 million in debt. That, coupled with poor academic performance, prompted the governor to pitch a proposal earlier this year to close the high school, so it could focus on K-8 grades.

William Pearson, director of partnership districts at MDE, said he will also be at Friday’s meeting.

“Right now, treasury is going to make a presentation,” Pearson said. “After that presentation, then, I think that MDE and treasury are going to work together. We have to see how it unfolds and what the Benton Harbor board will want to do.”

Since May 24 the governor’s office has given two proposals to Benton Harbor trustees, which they have rejected because they included the possibility of the high school being closed in 2020. Trustees sent their own 12-page proposal to the governor’s office July 23. 

Pearson said state officials have been looking over the district’s proposal ever since.

“The next step is what’s going to occur shortly,” he said.

Rice said the Benton Harbor district is between agreements right now. The district signed a consent agreement with the state in 2014 because of its debt. In 2017, the district signed a partnership agreement with the state due to low student achievement. 

The partnership agreement went away when district officials signed a cooperative agreement in July 2018 that put a CEO in charge, with trustees taking on advisory roles. Later in 2018, the treasury department released the district from the consent agreement, even though it still was in debt.

Pearson supervised the Benton Harbor school district while it was under the cooperative agreement as the State School Reform Officer. 

The cooperative agreement went away June 30 due to legislators unexpectedly passing legislation in December that did away with the law it was created under. The district’s CEO found a new job in June and Assistant Superintendent Patricia Robinson became the interim superintendent, a position she has been in before.

State Board Vice President Pamela Pugh said she’s glad to see state officials working with Benton Harbor trustees.

Benton Harbor school board trustees talked briefly about Friday’s meeting at their regular meeting Tuesday night.

“We are all still in negotiations,” said President Stephen Mitchell.