Michigan reveals new plan to aid struggling school district


Michigan is backing off its hard-line stance of demanding a struggling public school district close its high school.

The state now intends to implement a working group that will develop a long-term solution to resolve the financial and academic crisis at Benton Harbor Area Schools. The district is dealing with an $18.4 million deficit, declining enrollment and a terrible academic record.

Our goal is to work with the community to identify solutions for creating a viable kindergarten through 12th grade education system for Benton Harbor families,” Michigan State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks said.

“Our goal is to work with the community to identify solutions for creating a viable kindergarten through 12th grade education system for Benton Harbor families,” State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks said in a statement. “Both myself and my team are looking forward to working with the school board, community and the Michigan Department of Education to forge a path forward that works for everyone.”

The decision marks a turnaround from a plan announced by the state several months ago that called for the district to close its high school for the 2020-21 school year or risk dissolving the entire district or converting it into a charter school system.

The district and community overwhelmingly opposed that plan.

Under the new proposal, the state would establish an advisory committee to oversee an assessment and to develop an operating plan. The advisory committee would include representatives from the school board, district staff, city residents with enrolled students, the business community, the Michigan Department of Education, the Treasury’s Office of Fiscal Responsibility and the Deputy Treasurer of State and Local Finance.

Their goal would be to mitigate future uncertainty by creating a plan and adopting it by the end of the 2019-2020 school year. The advisory committee would meet regularly with the community and post information online about its activities.

“Taking this approach, you should expect an open, transparent process,” Deputy Treasurer Joyce Parker said at a Friday meeting of the Benton Harbor Area Schools Board of Education.

“As far as buying time, that’s not why we’re here,” Parker said. “If we’re able to have the model work in Benton Harbor, it’s a model that can work in other school districts.”

Board vice president Joseph Taylor said he’s open to the idea.

“This is the best idea I’ve heard so far because it throws all ideas out the window,” Taylor said. “And it’s now saying to our shareholders and our stakeholders that we all should be involved in this process.”

The state has asked the Board of Education to decide if it supports the framework via a resolution at their next meeting in September.

Benton Harbor Area Schools has roughly $18 million in outstanding debt. That includes $1.2 million in two school building and site bonds maturing in 2022 and $11 million in five state emergency loans maturing between 2026 and 2031. Debt service payments are scheduled to jump to $910,000 in fiscal 2020 from $556,000 in Fiscal 2019.

The district had been operating under a cooperative agreement with the state Education Department but on July 1, the locally elected Benton Harbor Area Schools regained the full authority of a traditional school board.

In November 2018 Benton Harbor’s school district was released from a state consent agreement it had been under since September 2014.

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