BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor school board trustees may have a new superintendent chosen by Dec. 9 if they follow the timeline set out by the search firm hired by the state to help them.

“The timeline is fluid. It depends on how well we move through it. But at least we’ve got some parameters,” school board President Stephen Mitchell said after Tuesday’s special meeting, where trustees met a representative from Ray & Associates.

Mitchell said the first step is for trustees to agree on the qualifications they want to see in a new superintendent. In addition, he said they need to identify members of several focus groups to aid in the search. Those groups include ones made up of students, teachers, administrators and parents/community members.

“It depends on the board and what their schedule is like, but we’d hope to have that done as soon as possible,” he said.

Lane Plugge, regional search associate with Ray & Associates, said his firm will interview each trustee individually to find out what they are looking for in a superintendent. He was standing in for the board’s regular assistant from Ray & Associates, Michael Collins, who was taking a daughter to college.

“We will work with the board to get consensus on those traits they are looking for in a superintendent,” Plugge said after the meeting. “During that time, concurrently running, we’ll be recruiting people. That’s very important.”

He said the school district’s struggles with the state shouldn’t be a problem.

“Certainly, there are some challenges, but there are a lot of superintendents out there looking for these kinds of challenges,” he said.

During the meeting, Secretary Patricia Rush passed out a sheet showing the qualifications she would like to see in a superintendent. She said applicants who have experience in Michigan’s school system should receive “extra credit” in whatever scoring system they set up.

“Michigan K-12 is not the same as K-12 in other states,” she said. “We need somebody that can hit the ground running.”

Other criteria she would like to see added to the list of qualifications is that applicants have experience in a majority-minority district and are committed to preserving and promoting the culture and legacy of the district.

Vice President Joseph Taylor said they need to do a wide search to find the right person.

“We’ve got a 6-month time frame to ... come up with a plan for the 2020-21 school year,” he said. “And so we’ve got to have a superintendent who can transform. And I don’t know if that can just be from this state. You can’t limit yourself, in my opinion, to just Michigan.”

History of state control

The school district has been under some type of state control since the fall of 2014, when trustees signed a consent agreement with the state due to its high debt of $15.5 million at the time. In the spring of 2017, trustees signed a partnership agreement with the state due to students’ low performance on state standardized tests.

In the summer of 2018, the partnership agreement was replaced with a cooperative agreement, which placed a CEO in charge of the district for five years. But that arrangement ended early on June 30 when the law the cooperative agreement was written under unexpectedly went away. The CEO resigned and Assistant Superintendent Patricia Robinson was named interim superintendent, a positions she has held before.

Meanwhile, on May 24 the district was thrown into chaos when the state released a proposal asking trustees to agree to close the high school so staff could focus on reducing the debt, which is now $18.4 million, and on improving test scores in grades K-8.

Trustees rejected that proposal and a second one, which also put the high school’s future in jeopardy. Residents at several public meetings have loudly stated their dislike for closing the high school.

Two weeks ago, state officials hit the reset button. State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks came to Benton Harbor with a plan to form an advisory committee made up of community members and two state officials, if trustees approved it. That committee would be tasked to come up with an operating plan to move the district forward.

School board trustees have not yet voted on that plan.

This isn’t the first time Ray & Associates has helped trustees find a superintendent.

They assisted in a previous search that resulted in the the hiring in January 2016 of former Superintendent Shelly Walker, who at the time was the assistant superintendent of student services at Ritenour School District in St. Louis. 

Walker was put on nondisciplinary paid administrative leave on Feb. 6, 2018, pending an investigation into undisclosed matters. On April 5, 2018, Walker received $160,000 from the school board after resigning.

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