Public hearing held on proposed Benton Harbor school cuts

By: Brandon Lewis Email
By: Brandon Lewis Email

Members of the public were able to give input Wednesday night into the proposed $2.5 million Deficit Elimination Plan.

The public hearing was far from formal as the public was instructed to break into groups and write their suggestions on paper easels before making presentations to the audience.

"It worked very well. It's how we have done it in the past, so we're very happy with the turnout and how the community responded," said Superintendent Leonard Seawood.

Most of those in attendance were teachers. Only four of the seven board members attended the meeting. Board Vice President Anthony Jett was at previously scheduled conference. Sharon James and Lue Buchana did not attend for unknown reasons.

"We don't want to cut our way out of this, we want to build revenue so that when our students come back they will have programs to come back to," suggested a teacher during the high school presentation.

40 staff members could be laid off, including five teachers.

Hull Middle School, Fair Plain Northwest Learning Academy and Martin Luther King Freshman Academy are all slated to be closed. Calvin Britain and McCord Elementary would be merged into the old Martin Luther King building.

"The issue is MLK was used as a ninth grade academy, so now you have to go back and change equipment, change classrooms, so there's a lot of money that goes back into changing everything back to suit the needs of elementary," said teacher Ms. Hecht.

Seawood said he wants the school closings to happen as early as January, meaning students would have to change schools in mid-year following winter break.

"I've had two midyear shifts since I've been here. It's very difficult for kids who need routine and structure to suddenly have to start a whole new routine and a whole new structure, however kids are kids and they adjust and they will reflect our attitude, and if our attitude is positive and this is for the best then the kids will come along," said special education teacher Dorothy Pope.

Some at the meeting expressed concerns for the planned layoffs to security guards. Board president Leroy Harvey announced during board comments he would not support a budget that includes a less secure environment for students.

High school teachers also voiced opposition to a proposed $8,000 reduction to the band's transportation budget and said a less competitive band could drive students away from the school, instead of back to the district.

Suggestions included changing to a four day school week with expanded hours, year round school with longer breaks in the winter to cut heating costs and reducing school's energy consumption. Some suggested fundraisers and other methods to raise money.

"Fundraisers and how we use our facilities, and maybe even putting some of the facilities up for sale, all that's on the table. There's nothing, I don't think that's not on the table," said Seawood.

The board did not discuss when it expects to put the proposed cuts to a vote. A retreat is scheduled for later this month and they will have a work session on November 2nd. The next board meeting is November 9th.

Seawood and some board members are scheduled to meet with the Michigan Treasury Department about its Deficit Elimination Plan on Thursday. Seawood said the State Superintendent has approved the new three year plan, but wants to be proactive to have the Treasury Department review it as well.

Benton Harbor Area Schools has reported a deficit for the last three years. In 2008-2009 school year, the latest reporting year available, the district reported a deficit of $11.6 million.

To view the current proposed plan, click the link below the headline of this story.

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