State officials offer to work with Benton Harbor Area Schools to fix district

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. (WNDU) - The clock is ticking to save Benton Harbor Area Schools.

The district is struggling, especially when it comes to student achievement and the large amount of debt.

At a public meeting Friday, the Michigan Department of Treasury offered to work with the district and community.

There has been a lot of back-and-forth discussion between school board members and state officials. The school board and community quickly turned down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s idea to close the high school.

“We understand the uncertainty that the community feels about what is going to happen to the district, what’s going to the school,” Treasurer Rachael Eubanks said.

Friday, there was more optimism in the air, as the Treasury and the state superintendent discussed taking a collaborative, community approach with the school board to create a successful district.

"This is the best I have seen so far,” Benton Harbor school board President Joseph Taylor said.

If approved by the school board, a Community Engagement and Advisory Committee would assess the district.

The committee would consist of about 10 people, like representatives from the school board, school district, city residents, Michigan Department of Education, the Michigan Department of Treasury and at least one student.

The committee would then give updates on the school district’s academic and financial conditions.

“About transparency, I’m talking about presentations in the community and providing information through the website,” Deputy Treasurer Joyce Parker said.

The committee would also work with stakeholders to develop an operating plan for the district.

“We think six months is a reasonable amount of time for the process to do the things I described: transparency, chance for stakeholder input, and a plan that is robust and implementable,” Eubanks said.

Some school board members said they were happy about this and thought it is a great first step.

One community member thought the committee needs to do an audit of the budget to see how the district got into this position in the first place.

"How did we get to $18 million in debt? Find out who appropriated what money and where … and if we do that and start from that point, then we will be able to move forward,” one man said.

"Where does the district currently sit from a financial perspective? And how did we get here? I hear that loud and clear,” Eubanks said.

The school board will spend the next couple weeks getting input from the community to add to the resolution. They will discuss this again at their meeting on Sept. 3.