BENTON HARBOR — The fate of Benton Harbor Area Schools will be decided partially by the elected members of the Michigan State Board of Education, Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles said Tuesday.
Members of the state school board talked for almost 45 minutes at their meeting in Lansing about what will happen after the cooperative agreement that Benton Harbor school board trustees signed with the state last year goes away this June 30.
In June 2018, Benton Harbor school board trustees agreed to hand over most of their power to a CEO/Superintendent in a five-year cooperative agreement they signed with the State School Reform/Redesign office. Trustees agreed to take on an advisory position. CEO/Superintendent Bob Herrera reports to the state School Reform Officer (SRO) and was to hold that position for the first four years.
But in late December, legislation was approved eliminating the section of law the cooperative agreement was signed under.
Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles said she received a written document Monday afternoon from the state Attorney General’s office outlining three options for the Benton Harbor district. The options are:
• The cooperative agreement ends and the local school board regains its traditional powers, with Herrera becoming a superintendent who reports 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 Herrera would remain the CEO and the school board would remain an advisory board.
Benton Harbor is the only school district in Michigan operating under a cooperative agreement. Partnership agreements were created under a previous law.
Who decides which option will be chosen?
Alles said members of the state board of education would be making the decision, along with the CEO, the SRO and the Benton Harbor school board president. There was no discussion Tuesday regarding who would have final say, or what happens if there is disagreement.
State school board Vice President Pamela Pugh acknowledged that there is a lot of confusion over the Benton Harbor district.
“There needs to be a meeting with everybody in the room,” she said. “Otherwise, to me it just seems like we’re purposefully having this confusion just continue to be kicked down the road.”
In addition, she questioned why the state board is suddenly being brought in to help decide the district’s future.
School Reform Officer William Pearson said it may seem like the process has been slow, but a lot of meetings have taken place. In addition, he said nothing could be decided until the attorney general weighed in – which just occurred on Monday. Pearson said he now needs to talk to the governor’s office, which is happening next Tuesday.
State school board member Tiffany Tilley said she is disappointed that she has not been updated about how serious the Benton Harbor situation is.
“We should be getting in-depth reports about what’s going on with Benton Harbor,” Tilley said.
State school board members said they would like to see financial reports from Benton Harbor Area Schools showing what has happened, both before and after Herrera took over the district on July 17, 2018. They said they would also like to see Herrera’s plan to attract and maintain students.
Some members said they don’t understand why the Department of Treasury is talking about turning the district into a charter school district when that option hasn’t shown a lot of success in other parts of the state.
Before state school board members talked about Benton Harbor, several people spoke during the public participation part of the agenda, including Benton Harbor school board Vice President Joseph Taylor, along with Marletta Seats, who was the school board president until Dec. 31.
Taylor said there is no financial emergency with the Benton Harbor school district. “We just passed our TAN, our tax anticipation note,” he said.
Taylor said the district will have to go before the state loan board to rearrange the district’s loans, but that’s common.
“We’re all in deficit,” he said. “We all have houses. We all have cars. You owe things.”
Taylor said it isn’t just Benton Harbor losing students and running into a financial crunch. State school board members heard during an earlier report that 75 percent of school districts in the state are losing students.
“It seems like this is a misappropriation of color because in black and brown communities, that’s where we see the takeovers,” he said.
Taylor said the school district wants to remain a public school district and do what’s right for the community.
Seats spoke, saying she is the person who signed the cooperative agreement. “Immediately after signing the cooperative agreement, there was great regret that we were put in that position,” she said.
Seats said she has sent many letters to state officials explaining the undue pressure put on Benton Harbor trustees to sign the cooperative agreement.
“We feel like we were taken advantage of,” she said.
Also speaking on behalf of Benton Harbor was Thomas Pedroni, an associate professor in curriculum studies at Wayne State University. He said he’s been researching urban public schools in Michigan for 15 years.
“I think you would agree that the state has had a rather poor track record within the last five to 10 years protecting the educational well-being of African-American students in our urban public schools,” he said. “To a significant degree, we’ve let the damage happen to our state’s children because we blamed local school boards and the schools they governed for the financial hardships and the academic challenges they face. That is, we’ve blamed local communities for our state’s failed policies.”
He said the state created Proposal A, which starved urban public schools of financial resources.
“And we created so-called accountability systems based on test scores that branded urban public schools as failing, either threatening to directly shut down schools for poor tests or hanging the albatross of failure around children and their schools. We as a state used test scores as a wrecking ball despite decades of commutative research that said test scores don’t measure school performance, but merely reflect the socio-economic status of the families that use urban schools.”