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Benton Harbor teachers agree to lower wages in face of potential state takeover

outside of Benton Harbor High School
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbors' school board voted to close a junior high school. 7th and 8th graders will head to Benton Harbor High School. Seawood said he's taken precautions to seperate the age groups within the school.

Teachers in Benton Harbor have agreed to an across-the-board cut of pay and benefits. Teachers ratified the contract with a vote of 85 yes and 65 no. Tuesday afternoon the school board voted 5 to 2 to approve a new contract that will reduce teachers’ pay by 10-percent beginning in February (the contract runs through August 2012). Teachers will pay 20-percent of their health care benefits.  In the past three weeks alone the school board has closed two schools and laid off 20 employees. They’ve also put buildings up for sale.

“That will help us with our cash flow and will allow us to continue our operation without a stoppage,” Superintendent Leonard Seawood said. “That’s a lot for this community to be proud of,” Seawood said, in terms of addressing the financial problems. Seawood has been with the district since August 2010. 

“We have dedicated teachers and staff and parents and students. And we all want to help – want to be a part of this reform effort in getting through these hard times," Seawood said. 

The state is expected to release its preliminary review of the district’s finances Wednesday. That’s the first step to determine if a district needs an emergency manager.

Seawood hopes these last minute, meaningful efforts will allow Benton Harbor's school board and his administration to continue to have local control. The City of Benton Harbor has been operating under a state-appointed emergency manger for nearly two years.

The school district is still running a $16 million budget deficit. That's about a third of the district's annual operating budget. The state’s report this week will determine if a new team will conduct a more thorough review or it could show Benton Harbor schools are complying with a five year deficit elimination plan.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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