BENTON HARBOR — Almost 200 people showed up for Wednesday’s Town Hall meeting to discuss how to save Benton Harbor Area Schools, including four of the eight elected members of the State Board of Education.

“Clearly there are a lot of citizens here who really love their school and they just want to see the school be successful,” said State Board of Education President Casandra Ulbrich after the meeting at Benton Harbor High School. “I think the first, most important thing that I saw tonight was just the passion of the citizens. The other thing is there really is a commitment to the kids, to making sure that whatever decisions that are made are made in the best interests of the kids.”

During the meeting, many residents discussed how the state can help the school district.

Elnora Gavin, a former Benton Harbor High School teacher, said the state can help by erasing the district’s $18 million debt so students can have a fresh start.

“I believe that that debt is not just ours,” she said. “I believe that the state should own that as well.”

She said that’s because the school district has been under some kind of state control for the last five years.

Gavin said almost 700 people have already signed an online petition that was put up two days ago calling for the debt to be forgiven. The petition, “Forgive the state debt so that our staff/students may finally teach/learn in peace,” can be found at www.bhwallst.com.

Ulbrich said state Board of Education members can’t forgive the debt, but they can advocate for legislators to do something about the debt.

Former Benton Harbor High School Principal Rodger Tripplett said millions of dollars have gone to consultants for the district, but there’s been no improvement and no accountability.

“There needs to be an investigation,” he said. “I want to ask this board of education – who’s in charge of the oversight and accountability of the Michigan Department of Education, the Department of Treasury and Berrien RESA?”

His wife, Marion Tripplett, said the state has been involved all of these years, but the district has never received a report on how the taxpayer’s money was spent or what was accomplished.

Another problem residents pointed out is the high number of substitute teachers in the school district. School officials have said in the past that many students have never had a certified math teacher from sixth grade until they graduate from high school.

The Benton Harbor school district is in its fifth year of state oversight, which started when the school board signed a consent agreement with the Michigan Department of Treasury in 2014 regarding the district’s $15.5 million debt at the time. Then the school board signed a partnership agreement with the Michigan Department of Education in April 2017 over the students’ poor achievement on state standardized test scores.

In June 2018, school board trustees signed a cooperative agreement with the state, handing over control to a CEO/superintendent for five years, with Bob Herrera receiving a contract to lead the district for the first four years. But that agreement will be voided after only one year, on June 30, when a new state law takes effect erasing the part of the law the cooperative agreement was made under.

Also at the meeting, Benton Harbor school board trustees voted to urge Herrera to hire Banks and Company to produce a five-year plan for the school district. Trustees can’t do it themselves until they take back control of the district on July 1.

But Mitchell said they would like to have the plan in place at the beginning of the year.

In addition, the resolution calls for the state to help pay for the strategic plan.

After the meeting, Eric Foster with Banks and Company said it would take four to five months to develop the plan. He said it would cost $70,000 to $100,000. He said the price depends on how many of his senior associates are needed to put the plan together.

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