A 12-member community advisory committee for Benton Harbor schools held its first meeting Wednesday night, electing its members and signing an agreement to create a plan to turnaround the city's struggling school district.

The Benton Harbor Area Schools Community Engagement and Advisory Committee met in the high school library where officials from the district and the state departments of education and treasury signed a memorandum of understanding to develop a plan for a viable K-12 system.

Joyce A. Parker, deputy state treasurer, said on Thursday that committee members include representatives from the district, the school board, the state departments of education and treasury, the philanthropic community, a ministerial alliance, teachers union and a student and parent.

Parker, who is a member of the committee, said the plan is for the committee to conduct an assessment of the district and its needs within 90 days and then develop recommendations for an educational and financial operating plan for the district within six months.

"The plan would also address a facility plan for the district, a plan to attract students back to the district and other areas," Parker said. "Our goal is to have something that is comprehensive that identifies areas that need to be addressed and what solutions are viable."

Parker estimated the proposed operating plan would be ready around early April. Parker said the district is operating this school year on a deficit elimination plan while it attempts to deal with a $4.4 million current budget deficit. The district has $18 million in long-term debt.

All committee meetings are open to the public and are scheduled on the first Monday of every month at the high school.

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

Whitmer initially pushed to close the district's two high schools in 2020 in lieu of districtwide closure. But last month, state school superintendent Michael Rice said Benton Harbor's high schools — a main high school and a small alternative school — should not be shut down. 

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

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