BENTON HARBOR — Parents in the Benton Harbor school district need to see changes happening, not another committee being formed to hold meetings.

That’s what Benton Harbor mother Apollonia Williams said during the first meeting Wednesday of the Benton Harbor Area Schools Community Engagement Advisory Committee.

“Will there be any actual physical contact with the community besides just meetings, because we’ve been doing meetings for years,” she told the mix of local people and officials from the state’s Department of Education and Department of Treasury. “Meetings really haven’t been productive. ... As parents, a lot of us stopped coming to meetings because nothing has changed, and we just keep coming and sitting down and talking about the same thing and there’s no changes.”

Bill Pearson, director of the Office of Partnership Districts with MDE and member of the committee, said he hopes the committee puts together a plan that not only helps the Benton Harbor school district, but can be used as a blueprint for other struggling urban school districts in the state.

“I work with several other urban areas that are experiencing some of the same issues that Benton Harbor is,” he said.

Pearson said the approach they are taking is new.

“I’m looking for change in our state so that we can be successful in urban communities,” he said.

In addition, Williams wanted to know what happened to previous plans for the district.

State Deputy Treasurer Joyce Parker, who was chosen to chair the committee, said the committee needs to assess what happened in the past in order to make plans for the future.

“We’re going to go back and gather those plans and determine if, in fact, they are viable or not,” she said. “If it worked, what worked in the plan. If it did not work, what did not work and try to learn from it so when we do come up with something, it’s realistic.”

She said committee members are going to really dig into the issue of supporting urban school districts and go beyond what is happening with the local finances. She said they may discover that there’s a need for changes to be made at the state level in, perhaps, legislation.

Reinaldo Tripplett, former BHHS principal, asked if the role MDE and the Department of Treasury played in the decline of the district would be looked at.

School board trustees have signed three agreements with the Department of Treasury and/or MDE since 2014 due to the district’s high debt and persistently low student scores on state standardized testing. During that time, the district’s debt rose from $15.5 million to $18.4 million.

The last of those agreements was dissolved on June 30 due to changes in state law.

Parker said MDE and the Department of Treasury are not exempt from the committee’s investigation.

“We’re here because we have to be part of the change,” she said. “And if there are areas where we need to make certain adjustments, we want to make sure that information is conveyed through our recommendations as part of the reporting process.”

The committee next meets at 5 p.m. Monday in the Benton Harbor High School library. Committee members agreed to meet at 5 p.m. the first Monday of each month, with the location to be announced. Special meetings will be called as needed. Between meetings, members will gather information and talk with people in the community.

Parker said state officials are setting up a page on the state website in which minutes, agendas, the meeting schedule and other information about the committee will be posted.

She said after the meeting that committee members need to complete an assessment and operating plan within six months.

“Once that occurs, our goal is to look at implementation right after the plan is approved by MDE, the school board, as well as the Department of Treasury,” she said. “The goal is to get that underway before the next school year.”

She said people who want to be put on the committee’s mailing list can send her their information at parker52@michigan.gov.

Nine committee members were present, while three more still need to be appointed. Two will be from the community – a parent representative and a student representative. Also, the state needs to appoint someone to represent the Bureau of Local Government & Schools Services.

On the committee, so far, are Parker, the Department of Treasury representative; Pearson, MDE representative; Lisa Cripps-Downey, community-based foundation representative; Pastor Maurice McAfee, Southwest Michigan Ministerial Alliance representative; Interim Superintendent Patricia Robinson, BHAS representative; Dr. Michael Spencer, business representative; union President Brenda Terrell, teacher/union representative; and BH school board Treasurer Denise Whatley-Seats, school board representative.

Also on the committee as a non-voting member is Wayne Watson, school board consultant. 

The future of the school district has been under a shadow since May, when state officials pressed Benton Harbor school board trustees to agree to close Benton Harbor High School at the end of the 2019-20 school year, or the entire district could be shut down. 

Trustees have opposed all plans in which the high school could close, and started working with the state in August to establish a joint advisory committee, in seeking a way forward.

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