Uncertainty continues about future of BHAS

Don Campbell / HP staff The Benton Harbor Schools administration building is picture March 17, 2018.

BENTON HARBOR — As Benton Harbor school officials make plans for the new school year, the relationship between the school board and the state remains in limbo.

During a school board retreat Saturday morning, Vice President Joseph Taylor said the cooperative agreement between the school district and the state is still in place, even though the state agency the agreement was made with – the State School Reform/Redesign Office (SRO) – ceased to exist July 1.

“(The agreement) never went away,” Taylor said. “Only the SRO. So we still have four years of that plan. All right? It’s not a one-year plan. It’s not a two-year plan. It’s not a three-year plan. We have four left in a five-year contract. You guys have to understand that’s the law. The law only took the SRO out of this. It didn’t take you out of your contract.”

When the cooperative agreement was signed in June 2018, it was meant to be in place for five years, with Bob Herrera serving as the superintendent/CEO for the first four years and reporting to the SRO. School board trustees agreed to take on an advisory role in all matters except taxation and the borrowing of money.

But state legislators in December approved ending the SRO on June 30. The Benton Harbor school district was the only district still under the SRO.

For months, state and school officials have been saying that when the SRO ends, the cooperative agreement would be voided and the Benton Harbor school board trustees were expected to regain their traditional powers. The school district has been under the state’s guidance for years due to its high debt and low student performance on standardized tests. State officials reported that the district’s debt is $18.4 million.

Herrera agreed to terminate his contract early after accepting a job as superintendent of Farmington Public Schools.

The five-page cooperative agreement states that the court is to interpret the agreement if there is a dispute and that the superintendent is designated as the CEO.

After the meeting, Acting Superintendent Patricia Robinson said she is not the CEO and referred any other questions on this matter to Taylor.

Taylor, board President Stephen Mitchell and board Secretary Patricia Rush declined to answer questions after the meeting.

During the meeting, trustees did not discuss what happened when Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist traveled to Benton Harbor this past Tuesday to talk with the school board’s leadership in a private meeting. 

The cooperative agreement was signed by former board President Marletta Seats and former School Reform Officer Dedrick Martin.

In March, Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles said during a Michigan State Board of Education meeting in Lansing that she received a written document from the state Attorney General’s office outlining three options for the Benton Harbor district. The options were:

• The cooperative agreement ends and the local school board regains its traditional powers, with the superintendent reporting to them.

• The cooperative agreement is turned into a partnership agreement, with the school board and superintendent returning to traditional roles. Under this option, the state would resume an oversight role with the district having to meet 18-month and 36-month benchmarks.

• All references in the cooperative agreement that refer to the state SRO are replaced with Michigan Department of Education, which means the superintendent would remain the CEO and the school board would remain an advisory board.

Benton Harbor school board trustees didn’t choose any of these options.

Controversy over the district’s fate became public May 24, when state Department of Treasury officials announced a plan they said would help the struggling district by suspending operations at Benton Harbor High School in 2020 so the district could focus on raising student achievement in K-8 grades.

Trustees rejected that plan plus another one, which would have required trustees to agree to close the high school in a year if certain benchmarks weren’t met.

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