BENTON HARBOR — The future of Benton Harbor Area Schools hangs in the balance as school board trustees meet with state officials in Lansing this morning.
Benton Harbor school board President Stephen Mitchell said the meeting was scheduled weeks ago between two school board trustees and officials from the state Department of Treasury to discuss how to lower the district’s debt, which is more than $18 million.
But rumors started flying Thursday that state officials planned to do a lot more than discuss the school district’s debt.
Mitchell said he doesn’t know anything about that.
Early Thursday morning, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad posted on his Facebook page that he can’t “in any shape form or fashion support the dissolution of Benton Harbor High School.”
“This is a reckless misadventure and will become a millstone around the administration of Governor Gretchen Whitmer,” he wrote. “It will serve as the flash point to the complete unraveling of public education for predominantly Black, Hispanic and poor communities.”
Thursday afternoon, state officials met at a Benton Harbor church with community leaders, including area pastors and educators, but not Benton Harbor school board trustees. A Herald-Palladium reporter was escorted out of the meeting and told that an embargoed news release would be sent to media outlets Friday after state officials meet with the Benton Harbor school board trustees in Lansing and come to an agreement.
A representative from the governor’s office said the media was not invited to the Thursday meeting in Benton Harbor because the meeting was just between state officials and community leaders. She also said nothing would be done without consent from Benton Harbor school board trustees.
Mitchell said none of the Benton Harbor school board trustees had been invited to the Thursday meeting.
“They’ve met with everyone but the school board,” he said.
This is apparently not the first time state officials have met with local people to discuss the future of the Benton Harbor school district without any of the elected school board trustees being present.
Last week, Benton Harbor teachers received an email from the teachers union president, Matt Nicholls, in which he stated that he, along with the head of the Michigan Education Association, talked with state officials about the future plans for the school district.
In the email, he said he doesn’t like the state’s plans and encouraged teachers to look for other jobs. The email included links to several local school job sites. He said he was asked by state officials not to disclose details of the plan.
In addition, several Lake Michigan College staff said the college’s president briefly talked Wednesday about how the college could help the Benton Harbor school district during an address to all staff.
When contacted by phone Thursday, LMC President Trevor Kubatzke said the college was approached by people from the governor’s office, asking how LMC could help the struggling school district.
“I don’t know what’s going to be needed,” he said. “... There’s a lot that we’ve talked about. It’s up to them to ask us.”
Mitchell said he’s disappointed that the elected school board trustees are the last to be talked to by state officials.
And he said any proposals to close Benton Harbor High School will not be considered.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said.
Instead, he said he plans to bring back the students who left the school district through schools of choice and for charter schools to make the district stronger.
He said he would like the state to help the district build a centralized school on the 136 acres of farmland the district owns on Napier Avenue near Lake Michigan College.
“We would blow the charter schools out of the water if we had the teachers and facilities to do it,” he said.
The Benton Harbor school district has been under some form of state control since 2014, when trustees entered into a consent agreement with the state because of its high debt. In 2017, trustees approved a partnership agreement with the state because of the students’ persistently low test scores on standardized tests.
The five-year cooperative agreement trustees signed with the state in June 2018 replaced the partnership agreement and put a superintendent/CEO in charge of the district, with the trustees taking an advisory position in all matters except taxation and the borrowing of money. In November, the state released the district from the consent agreement, even though it’s still in debt.
But state legislators voted in December to remove the part of the law the cooperative agreement was written under, effective June 30. School board trustees expect to take back local control on July 1, with the superintendent/CEO becoming a traditional superintendent.
Superintendent/CEO Bob Herrera was hired in June 2018 to hold that position for four years. But because of the uncertainty with the district reverting back to local control, he’s started looking for other jobs. He’s one of two finalists for the superintendent position in Farmington Public Schools in the Detroit area. That interview takes place Wednesday.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege