Benton Harbor Area Schools

BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor school board trustees this week approved hiring Ray and Associates to help them conduct a national search for a new superintendent.

President Stephen Mitchell said state officials in the Michigan Department of Treasury and Michigan Department of Education have agreed to pay the cost of $22,000 to hire the firm as the district struggles trying to figure out how to handle its $18.4 million debt.

"We will begin that process immediately," he said. "We will not have to readjust our budget."

The previous superintendent, Robert Herrera, also served as the district's CEO under a now concluded cooperative agreement between trustees and the state.

Herrera found a new job in June and Assistant Superintendent Patricia Robinson became the interim superintendent, a position she has been in before.

Even though the vote to hire a search firm was unanimous on Tuesday, it wasn't without some controversy.

Board Secretary Patricia Rush said before the vote that she has concerns that a national search will take too long.

"I've seen national searches take four to 12 months," she said. "During that period of time, we will have continued instability in terms of the future. I'm also concerned, personally, I think Miss Robinson is doing a good job. She's also, right now, fulfilling two jobs. She's being both the superintendent and assistant superintendent. She's also in charge of coordinating all of the instruction."

At previous meetings, trustees discussed doing a limited search or no search at all and hiring Robinson as superintendent. Mitchell has said that if they do a search, Robinson can apply and could be offered the position.

A matter of policy

Board Vice President Joseph Taylor said he supports a national search because it is required by the board's policies.

"The board is tasked with following the policy first and foremost, right," he said. "We can't just come up with things. We can't guess. This is the law. And the law has not been fulfilled."

In addition, he said board policy calls for the search to be done in a "wide geographical area."

"You have to follow the policy first," he said. "You can't just say you want something to be really small because this says 'wide' and wide means far, right. So we all understand the language of English. We need to follow the policy."

In the past, trustees have voted to suspend their bylaws and policies for various reasons.

For example, on Oct. 27, 2016, trustees unanimously voted to suspend their bylaws so they could appoint Taylor to a vacant trustee seat without having to go through the normal interview process. During the meeting, Taylor resigned from his trustee seat, which expired in December 2016, and was almost immediately re-appointed to the vacant seat, which expired on Dec. 31, 2018.  

After Tuesday's meeting, Taylor said the search should have started a long time ago. But he said trustees couldn't start the search until July 1 – when they regained their traditional powers. Although on June 10, when Herrera resigned, state officials offered to also end the cooperative agreement so trustees could regain their traditional powers right away instead of waiting until the end of the month. Trustees have never said why they rejected that offer.

Taylor said he spoke with state officials last week, requesting that they pay for the new superintendent search.

He further said that he's not worried about how long the superintendent search will take.

"We heard one person talk about taking too long," he said. "I think most people talked about, you know, the priorities should be the (hiring of a) principal of the high school first and the superintendent second."

Tripplett asked to apply

Taylor said he reached out to Reinaldo Tripplett, the former principal of Benton Harbor High School. 

"I just said, 'Hey, if you have your certification, come apply for the principal at Hull or the high school,'" Taylor said. "That's not up to one board member. For me, it was just a recommendation. ... I don't have a problem with Mr. Tripplett. He was OK back then and he's OK now."

Trustees, including Taylor, voted in December 2016 to fire Tripplett. Then-state Superintendent Brian Whiston had suspended Tripplett's administrator's certification and teaching certificate, saying Tripplett had lied on his application to renew his certifications.

Trustees were told that the district faced more than $400,000 in fines and they could be criminally charged if they kept in the district's employment a person who is not certified.

At the time, Tripplett said his certifications were taken away from him because of several traffic tickets. Then-Superintendent Shelly Walker had placed Tripplett on paid leave earlier in the year while an investigation was conducted. No criminal charges came out of the investigation.

During the meeting, Taylor said the second reason the board needs to do a superintendent search is because it is required in an addendum to the interim superintendent's contract.

"So we have to follow the guidelines of not only policy, you cannot break the contract guidelines of Interim Superintendent Robinson as well," he said.

Michigan Board of Education

At a separate Michigan Board of Education meeting Tuesday in Lansing, board members and staff made it clear that they didn't want Benton Harbor trustees to feel forced to do a superintendent search if they didn't want to do one.

"In the conversation today we had, I suggested that somebody, the governor's office, treasury or MDE, fund the superintendent search if the Benton Harbor board wants to have one," said William Pearson, director of partnership districts at MDE.

Pearson supervised the district as the School Reform Officer until June 30, when the position was eliminated.

State board members also talked about the need for a permanent superintendent to be hired in Benton Harbor.

Board member Tiffany Tilley said she wants to know what happened to the company trustees wanted to hire to put a strategic plan together.

Pearson said efforts to put together that plan were put on hold until a permanent superintendent is hired.

"We had to back up and not move forward with any strategic plan until we got our feet on the ground," he said. "... If I was the superintendent and things were unraveling as they were, you can't really go forward with a strategic plan."

Pearson said it's up to school board trustees to decide how they want to move forward with the strategic plan.

"First they have to hire a superintendent. That needs to happen," he said. "Then they need to start talking about a strategic plan. ... You shouldn't, in my opinion, put a strategic plan in place without having a superintendent."

But Tilley said the governor's office keeps asking for one.

"The fact that it kept being paused, I think, is a big part of the issue," she said. 

State board Vice President Pamela Pugh said a reset button has been set for the school district.

State officials from the governor's office, treasury and MDE, including new State Superintendent Michael Rice, will meet with Benton Harbor trustees in an open meeting at 5 p.m. Friday in the Student Commons at Benton Harbor High School.

They are expected to discuss a 12-page plan trustees sent to the governor's office on July 23 that outlines how the district can reduce its debt and increase student achievement.

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.

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