BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor school board trustees are taking the fight to Lansing today to keep the district high school open.
Three trustees, along with their attorneys, are expected to meet with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and other state officials to present their plan to turn around the district, which has been struggling financially and academically for years.
Trustees were told they have until Friday to accept the state’s proposal to close Benton Harbor High School in 2020, or the entire school district could be dissolved or chartered.
Meanwhile, trustees took a step towards local control Monday when they accepted Superintendent/CEO Bob Herrera’s resignation effective immediately and appointed Assistant Superintendent Patricia Robinson as interim superintendent.
But School Reform Officer William Pearson told members of the Michigan State Board of Education Tuesday that’s he’s disappointed that trustees didn’t also approve signing the end of the cooperative agreement the district has been under since last summer.
“I signed off on the cooperative agreement (Monday) night before the meeting, scanned that and sent it to the attorneys,” he said. “Then I got a call from the attorney (Monday) night that they accept the resignation for Dr. Herrera ... but did not want to terminate the cooperative agreement, which was surprising and disappointing because the board speaks through their attorney, and I was assured that that’s what they wanted to do.”
Pearson said some media reports that he rescinded his signature on Herrera’s resignation aren’t true.
“What I did this morning was I rescinded my signature to terminate the cooperative agreement,” he said. “... I didn’t want the board to have my signature and then any day, they could just say, ‘Well, we want to vote to terminate the cooperative agreement.’ The agreement was to terminate it (Monday) night, and they decided they did not want to do that.”
Benton Harbor school board President Stephen Mitchell said the trustees never saw a signed agreement from Pearson to terminate the cooperative agreement.
“His failure to sign it left us in a lurch,” he said. “We were waiting for a signature from him. ... We were disappointed that he didn’t sign.”
Mitchell said they weren’t going to sign it unless Pearson signed it first.
Because the cooperative agreement is still in effect, he said Robinson reports to Pearson instead of to the school board until both sides sign to terminate it June 30, when the law the cooperative agreement was signed under goes away.
Mitchell said that perhaps there was a technology problem that kept Pearson’s signed copy from reaching the board. He said he hopes it can be straightened out today.
The state board talked about Benton Harbor’s situation for an hour Tuesday.
State Board Vice President Pam Pugh said all of the negativity is destroying the Benton Harbor community.
“It’s like taking a bulldozer or a hammer to something,” she said. “... It causes so much disruption and this continues to happen in our black and brown communities and it has to stop.”
Pugh said this is important because there are other school districts in similar situations.
“I am just concerned because we have so many districts that are facing the same situation and if we continue to do things the way that we’re doing them, we may as well just in one sweep close all of our black and brown communities and put them under whatever experiment we want to put them under,” she said.
She said Benton Harbor teachers have already started looking for other jobs because they heard about the state’s plan even before the state school board heard about it, which is further causing chaos.
Pugh said after they find out what law is being used, they need to find out if the proper process was followed.
“I’ve asked several people, and I have not been able to get a thorough answer that points me to the law,” she said.
Plus, she said the local school board gave the state a plan in April.
“To act like they didn’t have a plan before this proposal came up, that’s not true,” she said.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege