Benton Harbor school board rejects plan to save schools

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Benton Harbor — No deal, said residents and school officials.

The Benton Harbor school board and residents said Tuesday they want no part of a tentative agreement that would have staved off the closing of its high school.

During a special meeting, the five-member board unanimously rejected a resolution calling for it to work with the state on the proposed deal. The board said the state had requested such a resolution.

Benton Harbor School Board president Stephen Mitchell.

“We want to work together but need to have trust and collaboration,” said board president Stephen Mitchell. “We need to see more of that before a deal is made.”

Board members said they were angry with the state for saying it had reached a proposed deal with them. The board said no tentative agreement had ever been made.

The state said last week it had hashed out a proposal that called for the school district to improve the academic performance of its 1,800 students and, at the same time, reduce its staggering $18 million debt.

But board member Patricia Rush, who was part of the negotiations, said no agreement, tentative or otherwise, had ever been reached.

“We never agreed to any of it,” she said. “This has to be a partnership.”

Rush accused state staffers of being disrespectful and duplicitous.

“In my entire 40-year professional career, I have never been treated the way I have been by the governor’s staff,” said Rush, who is a physician.

Contacted by The Detroit News after the meeting, state officials fired back, saying the two sides had indeed reached a tentative deal. It accused the board of failing to negotiate in good faith.

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said she was disappointed by the board's decision.

“This vote is a setback for Benton Harbor students, parents and the community,” she said.

As for Rush's accusation, Brown produced a June 27 email Rush wrote to the state that seemed to acknowledge the consensus reached by the two sides in an earlier meeting.

"As we continue the process of collaborating with the State, we want to ensure our planning meets your objectives and time frame as noted in the meeting yesterday," wrote Rush.

When details of the tentative agreement were released by the state Treasury Department on Monday, Rush began getting threatening calls from residents who accused the school board of selling out, she said during the meeting.

Rush said the board wouldn’t agree to even a tentative deal unless the state agreed to increase funding by a minimum of $1.3 million a year so the school system could fill all its teaching positions at salaries comparable to neighboring districts.

She also said Benton Harbor would never agree to a tentative deal that included the proposed closing of the high school.

The proposal said that if the district failed to meet certain goals after a year, the board would agree to suspend operations of the high school, according to an overview of the pact provided by the state Treasury Department. Students would then attend schools in neighboring districts.

The special meeting, which was held at the high school, was jammed with people angry about details of the proposal. About 80 people attended the meeting.

As speakers criticized the tentative deal, they received loud support from the crowd. Among those applauding and giving spoken encouragement were members of the school board.

Residents were especially upset by the proposal’s inclusion of shutting down the high school.

“This community will not and does not support any tentative plan with a shutdown on the table,” Mayor Marcus Muhammad said to loud applause.

Residents also were angry by what they saw as the short time frame of the proposal.

The pact sets benchmarks that would show whether progress is made academically and financially after a year, according to the overview of the proposal. If the goals are met, the district and state would establish new goals.

But several residents said one year wasn’t enough time to show progress in a school system that has struggled for a long time.

“You can’t make those improvements in a year,” said the Rev. Ed Pinkley, a local activist. “The agreement is worthless. Nobody would agree to something like that. Nobody.”

The plan sets benchmarks that show the school system is making improvements.

Among the proposed goals are raising teacher pay, balancing the budget, hiring a highly qualified superintendent and chief financial officer, and retaining them for the entire school year, and increasing the number while decreasing the use of substitutes, according to the overview.

Other tentative benchmarks are improving student growth and proficiency, reducing the number of students who are chronically absent, ensure board members take leadership training sessions and reduce spending on non-instructional expenditures.

If the benchmarks are met, the state will provide “supports” to the school district, according to the overview. But the overview doesn’t identify what they would be.

Muhammad had said the state would allocate resources and that the district’s debt would be restructured. But he didn’t provide specifics on either count.

The district annually receives $8,000 per student with $700 paying off debt.

The first step of the proposed accord called for the district to meet this month with national experts who have experience turning around troubled school systems.

If the district decides to use one or more of the experts, the state would help it engage with the specialists, according to the overview.

The tentative agreement comes in the form of an enhanced deficit elimination plan.

Because the district’s debt is projected to last at least five years, it is required to come up with the deficit elimination plan, according to the overview. It also is required to provide monthly financial reporting.

This western Michigan city has long struggled with teeming poverty and high unemployment. The money woes seeped into the school system, which has been running a deficit since the mid-2000s. Enrollment has nearly been cut in half since 2000.

Whitmer, the newly minted Democratic governor, proposed in May that closing the predominantly black high school would help the district pay off the debt.

But the idea angered residents, the school board, other Democrats and two black members of the State Board of Education.

School board representatives met last week with Whitmer’s staff and members of the state education and treasury departments to come up with an alternative that would keep the school open while addressing the academic and financial woes.

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Twitter: @francisXdonnell