BENTON HARBOR — The future of Benton Harbor Area Schools is in limbo. School board trustees said Thursday they lack even the authority to accept or reject the state plan to suspend operations at the high school, which would prevent dissolution of the entire district.

Superintendent/CEO Bob Herrera, who was not at the scheduled board meeting, said later that the language is already written so he can give the trustees the authority to decide the district’s fate. He said it just needs to be signed by himself, the state’s school reform officer, plus the board. Herrera said he was not at the meeting because contract negotiations with the district’s teachers union took longer than anticipated.

Board members did not give any indication Thursday whether they are inclined to accept or reject the state plan, or simply not act either way.

Controversy over the district’s fate became public May 24, when the state Department of Treasury announced a plan to help the struggling district by suspending operations at the high school in 2020. High school students would be dispersed to eight surrounding school districts and a newly created charter school, with K-8 grades remaining part of the district. 

At a town hall meeting in Benton Harbor on Wednesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said the high school could be rebooted after the district was no longer in debt and student achievement had risen. In exchange for accepting the plan, the state is willing to forgive up to almost $11 million of the district’s $16 million debt.

Trustees were initially given until today to accept the state offer. But Whitmer extended the deadline to June 14, and also said she’d consider a viable alternative if presented one. 

Trustees pointed out that currently they can only serve in an advisory capacity, due to the agreement reached with the state last summer. Trustees can only vote on matters concerning taxation and the borrowing of money.

Because of changes in state law, trustees are expected to regain their traditional authority on July 1, the same day Herrera starts a new job as superintendent of Farmington Public Schools. 

During their meeting Thursday, trustees did approve having Chief Financial Officer Todd Mora ask state officials to restate the payment structure of the district’s five emergency loans. He said that will save the district $300,000 during the 2019-20 school year.

In addition, they approved recommending to Herrera the hiring of EdOps, which submitted a proposal to provide finance and accounting services to the district. 

The problem is that Chief Financial Officer Todd Mora is leaving the district next Friday, plus the district’s accounting position is vacant. 

Herrera previously said that the district has advertised the position openings for more than a month, but no one has applied.

In other business, trustees approved:

• renewing the contract with Signature Realty to market some of the district’s excess properties;

• taking out a state anticipation note in anticipation of incoming property taxes.

Herrera said he will hold at least one more meeting before June 30, but he isn’t sure when it will be. He said he’s waiting for the district’s 2019-20 budget to be finalized so he can approve it before the end of the month.

Board Vice President Joseph Taylor said after the meeting that trustees will talk about how to search for a new superintendent after the issue has gone through the personnel committee.

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