BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor school board President Stephen Mitchell said he’s confident trustees will soon reach an agreement with state officials on who should be on the proposed community advisory committee. 

But they’re not ready yet, he said during the board’s work session on Tuesday.

State officials proposed on Aug. 16 that a committee be formed to come up with an operating plan to improve the district, which is struggling academically and financially. Mitchell said there’s been some back and forth about who should be on the committee since then, with up to three ideas put forth.

He asked trustees to look at the ideas and to get back to him by Thursday, regarding the makeup of the committee.

“We’re not putting any names anywhere at this time,” he said. “We’re setting up the parameters of who’s on the advisory committee.”

Trustees are expected to consider a resolution about the makeup of the committee at their regular meeting at 6 p.m. Sept. 10 at Benton Harbor High School.

One disagreement is over how many school board trustees should be on the committee. Trustees want at least two members on the committee, while state officials only want one.

In addition, Mitchell said they would like to add to the committee Wayne Watson, former president of Chicago State University, who retired in Southwest Michigan.

That request was also rejected by state officials.

Vice President Joseph Taylor said that according to school board policy, the trustees have the power to create the committee.

“We can agree to disagree but at the same time, the board of education is the power structure based on law, based on the state constitution,” he said. “We are a board that is not under state control. That’s not under any control. Whatever we need to have on this advisory committee, we can deem that.”

The school district came under state control through a consent agreement in September 2014 for its high debt and through a partnership agreement in April 2017 for students’ persistently low test scores on standardized tests. Trustees signed a five-year consent agreement with the state in June 2018 that replaced the partnership agreement and put a superintendent/CEO in charge of the district, with the trustees taking an advisory position. But that agreement ended June 30 due to changes in the law.

The state released the district from the consent agreement in November 2018, even though it’s still in debt, last reported to be $18.4 million.

Secretary Patricia Rush agreed that more than one trustee should be on the committee.

“One board member is not adequate,” she said. “There should be at least two, and I asked if we could at least have an alternate because what if that board member is on vacation or sick. ... They said no, we could not have an alternate. I think that’s kind of crazy.”

Rush said she is also concerned about how the committee would make decisions. She said state officials said the committee members would not take votes because whatever plan the committee came up with would have to be approved by the school board.

Taylor said another concern of his regards why trustees are dealing with the Michigan Department of Treasury instead of the Michigan Department of Education.

“The board assumed we would probably go into a partnership agreement with MDE,” he said.

In July, trustees sent a 12-page proposal for state officials to consider that he said is very similar to a partnership agreement. 

“What was wrong with the plan the board presented?” Taylor said. 

He said he’s seen it reported in the media that state officials are reviewing the plan.

“Where are the notes from the review between MDE, the governor and treasury of our plan?” he said.

Taylor said trustees were never told why state officials didn’t accept the plan, adding that it cost a lot of money to put the plan together.

“Every time we had our attorneys read this and go back and forth, that’s monetary money that goes away from educating our kids,” he said.

Taylor said the proposed resolution creating the advisory committee is between the trustees and the state Treasury Department.

“It doesn’t even mention our state superintendent,” he said. 

He said the board needs to ask MDE to put the district into a partnership agreement before the proposed committee comes up with an operating plan.

“Then we’ll have protection from dissolution or dissolving the district,” he said. 

The district has been in turmoil since May 24, when the Whitmer administration proposed suspending operations at the high school in 2020 so the district could focus on educating students in grades K-8 and on reducing the district’s large debt. At the time, state officials said that if the plan wasn’t accepted, the entire district could be dissolved.

Since then, trustees have rejected not only that plan, but another one that would have closed the high school next year if certain academic and financial benchmarks weren’t met.

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