Future remains unclear for Benton Harbor students

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

With just three weeks until the first day of school in Benton Harbor, the school district has no approved academic plan, permanent superintendent or solution to its deep financial crisis.

Union officials say they don't know how many teachers will show up on Sept. 3, and one mother has made the tough decision to withdraw three of her four children from the southwest Michigan district of 1,800 students.

Benton Harbor school officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have been in talks since May to find a way to operate the district and address its significant academic and financial challenges.

The urban school district, whose 1,800 students are 92 percent black and 81 percent economically disadvantaged, has staggeringly low academic achievement and has been ravaged by years of declining enrollment.

Whitmer initially pushed to close the high schools in 2020 in lieu of districtwide closure. But with a looming back-to-school date, parents, teachers and community members feel in the dark about the district's future even for this fall.

Parent Apollonia Williams has had enough of the uncertainty.

Williams, a longtime supporter of the district who opposed Whitmer's initial plan to close the high schools, had earlier this summer enrolled her four children in Benton Harbor schools for the new school year. But this month, she pulled her three youngest out of the district and is sending them to a nearby charter school.

"It's just not stable. I am still going to help fight, but I will return my kids after things are stable," Williams said. 

Williams is allowing a daughter to finish her senior year at the high school but only because the teen wants to stay with her friends. Williams says she is upset because little information has been shared with parents and the community on the state of the district and its future viability.

"We haven't heard anything else. It’s a quiet space now," Williams said. "We don’t have a permanent superintendent. All of that just needs to be taken care of."

Late last week, state superintendent of public instruction Michael Rice said Benton Harbor's high schools — a main high school and a small alternative school — should not be shut down. It was the first time Rice addressed questions on the district since becoming state superintendent this month.

“Collectively as a state, we need work to strengthen Benton Harbor’s finances and academics, such that closing the high school is not necessary," he said. "The high school is the center of a community, particularly in a one-high-school town.”

New state superintendent of public instruction Dr. Michael Rice said Benton Harbor's schools should not be shut down. "The high school is the center of a community, particularly in a one-high-school town," he said.

According to state law, Rice and the state treasury are the only two authorities in Michigan to close school districts. The governor's office has said it believes state lawmakers would be needed.

Whitmer caused an uproar when in May she sent the Benton Harbor school board a proposal to close its high schools in 2020 and send those students to predominantly white districts. 

The urban school district, whose 1,800 students are 92 percent black and 81 percent economically disadvantaged, has staggeringly low academic achievement and has been ravaged by years of declining enrollment.

Lou Ann Vidmar of the Michigan Education Association, who represents Benton Harbor, said on Wednesday the union does not know how many teachers are returning to the district this fall or how many retired or resigned this past year.

The district had 97 teachers last school year with about 40 percent long-term subs. 

"Due to the upheaval at the district and going by the job listings through the Berrien RESA website, there are currently 42 vacant teaching positions posted," Vidmar said.

"However, teachers at (Benton Harbor Area Schools) are notorious for leaving the district and not letting the district know. So it is anyone’s guess as to how many will actually return for the start this year," Vidmar said.

Some newly hired teachers will walk away once they are hired, Vidmar said, noting some new teachers are told they will be teaching a certain grade level or subject and then the day school starts they are moved to fill a vacancy that is within their certification. 

This situation is a challenge for Benton Harbor and other districts with large teacher vacancies and higher percentages of long-term substitute teachers who are often rerouted to the neediest academic areas.

"This happens throughout the school year, so the uncertainty of where they will work is a huge factor in retention of new hires," Vidmar said. "I can’t imagine spending weeks prepping my classroom with materials (mostly paid for by the teacher) to have that yanked out from under them as they are moved to a new assignment."

In terms of its financial future, the Benton Harbor school board approved in June a $25.3 million budget for the 2019-20 school year that ends the school year with a $1.2 million fund balance.

But in a plan it sent Whitmer in late July, the board agreed to enter into an enhanced deficit elimination plan and financial recovery agreement to address its $18 million debt and is asking the state to provide an "equal" contribution of $8.5 million.

The combined money would equal $17 million to resolve both the outstanding long-term bond debt and the current general fund deficit.

But the plan sent to the governor's office has not been approved.

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer's office, said earlier this month the most recent four-year plan proposed by the school board remains under review.

“We have asked the Michigan Department of Treasury and the Michigan Department of Education to review the financial and academic benchmarks included in the proposal submitted by the Benton Harbor Area School Board," Brown said. "Discussions are ongoing, and we look forward to working with the board on a solution that is in the best interest of BHAS students.”

Asked if there was any urgency to have a plan in place by the start of the school year, Brown said, "School will open in the fall, and we will continue discussions with the district regarding a plan/proposal."

Craig Thiel, director of research with the Citizens Research Council, a public affairs research organization, said without an approved financial plan, the district will have to start using its existing funds to pay down old emergency loans during the upcoming school year, which means money intended for instruction, teacher salaries and classroom supplies could be diverted.

"Generally, debt is the first thing a government has to pay," Thiel said. "Those are dollars that compete with classroom dollars."

Thiel said the district has five emergency loans that have been interest-only payments. But starting this school year, fiscal 2019-2020, a principal payment is required, which means the district's debt service will go up.

The district also owes the state money after a discrepancy was found in enrollment numbers from 2018-19 school year, Thiel said. An audit found it over-reported students by 150 and the district owes about $800,0000.

"That will be something they have to deal with," Thiel said.

School officials also expect enrollment to drop this new school year by 150 students, bringing the district's projected enrollment to 1,650 students, according to a budget memo. 

"I don't think the punch for the cash flow comes immediately," Thiel said. "If spending isn’t reworked, then there could be some serious financial strain come spring."

That means the district might have serious cash flow challenges, the likelihood of unpaid vendors and payless paydays in the coming year.

Thiel said in the past, the prospect of unpaid staff and vendors prompted the state to step in with an emergency loan, but that is no longer an option after the state’s authority to issue new loans to schools under the Emergency Municipal Loan Act expired in 2018.

Last week, the district reviewed proposals for a superintendent search. The district has an interim superintendent, Trish Robinson, but is searching for a permanent replacement this fall.

Robinson told The News that on the first day of school, doors will be open to receive students and parents.

"We are excited, and we will have staff who are ready and willing to shape the future of our students," Robinson said.

The district has opened up a parent resource room inside Benton Harbor's high school where parents can access computers, receive training and find a quiet space for reading and studying.

Regarding staffing levels, Robinson said the district is still working on attracting teachers and said the number of hires is growing. She said she has not come across cases of families withdrawing from the district.

"We are continuing to enroll students. ... I want the parents to know we are still in negotiating with the governor's office on the plan. I would direct them to the website. where they will find good information on where we are going with academics."

The district is also sticking to the budget it approved for the school and expects to make revisions as decisions are made between the state and school board.

Asked about the mood of the community as families prepare for heading back to schools, school board vice president Joseph Taylor said: "That’s a conversation we will continue to have as a district. We don’t want to get into the weeds."

Taylor also addressed the status of the district's academic plan, saying: "We are still working things out. Right now there is not a plan because it's business as usual just like any other school district in America."

Chris Wigent, executive director of the Michigan Association of Superintendents and Administrators, said having an academic plan approved and in place sends a message to staff, the community and parents about the direction the school is headed. 

"Everything everyone is doing should be headed toward that plan; strategies and all the professional development all points toward that plan," Wigent said.

Robinson said the district will be following the growth goals and projections set in the district's proposed plan sent to the governor in July even though it has not been formally approved.

"Academically as far as our goals, we will move forward with the targets in the plan," she said.

Robinson said she is excited for the first day of school.

"I am honored to be sitting here as interim superintendent and be able to map out what the first day will look like," she said.

"I will visit each building to show support for staff and to parents who are bringing students to school."