BENTON HARBOR — The reset button has been set between the Benton Harbor school board and state officials.
State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks told the crowd at Benton Harbor High School on Friday that if the school board approves, the state wants to set up and fund a community advisory committee to assess how the school district got in its current situation, then come up with an operating plan to move the district forward.
Officials from the state Treasury Department and the governor’s office have been negotiating with school board trustees since May 24, when the state pitched a plan to close the high school in 2020 so the district could focus on reducing its $18.4 million debt (with state help) and raising student achievement in grades K-8.
No mention of the debt or poor student performance was made during Friday’s special school board meeting. Eubanks said they purposefully didn’t come to the meeting with a bunch of numbers.
She said state officials devised the plan to form an advisory committee by listening to local residents.
“This approach is very much formulated from the interactions that we’ve had when we’ve been in town previously, as well as all of the ongoing conversations that we’ve had between the board and the state at the state level,” she said. “I just want to make sure everyone understood that this approach is really tailored to what we’ve heard over time as we’ve been working these past few months.”
Eubanks stressed that the process, if approved, will be open and transparent and is expected to take about six months.
State Superintendent Michael Rice said that while the committee needs to have enough time to do its job, it can’t take too long.
“The clock is ticking. We need to move,” he said. “... We need to move forward from process to product because it’s the product that educates our children, not the process.”
Deputy Treasurer Joyce Parker said if the advisory committee needs a consultant, the state will pay for one.
A couple of residents asked if the state could give the district the $11 million it was discussing forgiving from the debt if trustees agreed to the initial plan to close the high school in 2020.
Eubanks said that money is not part of the current proposal.
The Rev. Rodney Gulley, president of the Southwest Michigan Ministerial Alliance, asked if the objective was to save the school district or to bide time.
Parker said the goal is to develop a long-term plan to have a sustainable school district.
“We want to see a better district, K-12, here in Benton Harbor,” Parker said. “... If we’re able to have the model work in Benton Harbor, it’s a model that could work in other school districts. I think it’s a positive.”
After the meeting, board President Stephen Mitchell said he’s glad to hear that the state wants to work with the school board in a true partnership.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction,” he said. “I enjoyed their proposal. I think their framework is workable. It’s a lot more positive.”
Mitchell said he will get feedback from the rest of the trustees on how they want to move forward. He said he expects trustees to discuss the state’s latest proposal at their work session on Sept. 3, and to possibly have something to vote on by the Sept. 10 meeting. Both meetings will be at 6 p.m. at the high school.
The proposed advisory committee would include representatives from the school board, district staff, a city resident with at least one child in the district, the business community, Michigan Department of Education, the Treasury’s Office of Fiscal Responsibility and the deputy treasurer of State and Local Finance.
During the meeting, Eubanks said other members could be added, such as from the ministerial alliance. She said the idea for setting up an advisory committee came from the governor’s office.
School board Secretary Patricia Rush said she would like to see a high school student added to the committee.
Some in attendance expressed skepticism about the proposal.
“We’ve seen this before,” said Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad. “... The state of Michigan has played a Dr. Frankenstein role. And the product is Benton Harbor Area Schools. ... It seems like the state has had some confusion in this process where Gov. (Gretchen) Whitmer comes to Benton Harbor with an ax and threatens the district.”
Muhammad said the result is that many parents are questioning if they should keep their children in the district. “The state’s role, historically, has been punitive.”
Muhammad said many of the school district’s problems have been created by state policies, either directly or indirectly.
“Hopefully, the new relationship can be restorative, not punitive,” he said.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege