BENTON HARBOR — The Benton Harbor school district will have one year to meet benchmarks outlined in a tentative new agreement between the state and school board trustees, or operations at Benton Harbor High School will be “suspended.”

That’s according to the “BHAS Tentative Joint Plan Overview” posted Monday on the web page the state created for Benton Harbor schools – michigan.gov/bentonharborschools.

If the high school is no longer open, the 10-page document states: “The district would partner with surrounding districts to serve students in grades 9-12. The board would revise its strategic plan to solely focus on improving outcomes for students in K-8 and stabilize the finances of the district.”

The document doesn’t give details regarding what the benchmarks are, saying the “final version of the financial recovery agreement, including specific quantitative targets, is under review by the school board.”

The document also doesn’t say what will happen if school board trustees don’t reach an agreement with the state.

The future of the high school was put into doubt on May 24 when state officials announced the intention to suspend operations at the high school in 2020 so the school board could concentrate on raising student achievement in K-8, and on reducing the district’s $18.4 million debt. After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer talked with residents in Benton Harbor at a town hall event on June 5, she said the high school could be reopened once student achievement had improved and district debt was eliminated.

In addition, state Treasurer Rachael Eubanks said that up to almost $11 million of the district’s debt could be forgiven if trustees agree to the state proposal.

Trustees rejected the proposal on June 14 and countered with one of their own.

Three trustees traveled to Lansing last week to discuss that proposal and the future of the school district with state officials. The full board is expected to discuss the tentative plan today at 6 p.m. at Benton Harbor High School after meeting in closed session with the board’s attorney. 

Board President Stephen Mitchell, Vice President Joseph Taylor and Secretary Patricia Rush did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

School board trustees regained the full authority of a traditional school board on Monday, when the law that created the State School Reform/Redesign Office was dissolved. Before that, they were under a cooperative agreement they signed with the state in June 2018 that put a superintendent/CEO in charge while the board took on an advisory position in all matters except taxation and the borrowing of money.

But because the district has a general fund deficit that is projected to last five years or more, trustees are now required to develop an enhanced deficit elimination plan (EDEP), which requires monthly financial reporting to the state, according to the tentative joint plan overview.

The document posted Monday says the financial recovery agreement is part of the EDEP, and that the state expects to have a final agreement signed by the end of July.

The document lists several examples of benchmarks the district could be required to meet, including:

• hire a highly qualified superintendent and CFO and retain them for the entire school year;

• increase the number of certified teachers so the number of long-term substitutes can be decreased;

• increase teacher compensation;

• make attainable increases in student growth and proficiency, as measured by assessment tests such as M-STEP and SAT;

• significantly decrease the percentage of students who are chronically absent;

• adopt a balanced budget;  

• reduce the percentage of the budget used for non-instructional expenditures.

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