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“It’s a shame” Benton Harbor schools can’t afford to keep millions in grant money

Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio

Last summer Benton Harbor schools won a three-year, $18 million grant to improve student success. But the district is having major financial problems.

Now the district says it doesn’t have the staff it needs to put the grant money to work, so it’s giving up the grant after one year. The district hopes to be able to get the grant back for the 2016-17 school year.

For perspective, the district’s deficit is around $16 million. Its total revenues last year were $33 million.

“It’s a shame,” school board president Sharon James said. “We certainly could use the resources.”

James says the school board recognizes it doesn’t have “appropriate staffing and financial oversight to effectively and efficiently administer” the grant at this time. James says they had the staff at the building level to support the grant, but not at the central office.

James says the central office is severely understaffed. Turnover rates have been high, she says, and financial constraints have added to the problem.

Next school year the intermediate school district in Berrien County is expected to take over Benton Harbor schools’ business office. James believes this will help put the district in a place where it will be able to administer the grant.

Benton Harbor applied for the grant last summer, but in September the district entered into a consent agreement with the state after the governor declared a financial emergency existed.

The district had to redo its budget under this agreement. That budget had different staffing levels than the grant application detailed, according to consent agreement consultant Cynthia LaGrow. The new budget did not include funding for a person to oversee compliance and the budget for the grant.

Michigan’s Department of Education denied funding for two central office staffers to oversee the grant. MDE spokesman Bill DiSessa says the department felt these positions were “unnecessary” because the district already had a full-time grant coordinator at each of the three buildings where the grant was to be used.

“Benton Harbor Area Schools could not articulate what the two additional district-level positions would do differently than the full-time, building-level coordinators,” DiSessa wrote in an email.

DiSessa says no grant recipients are allowed to duplicate roles and responsibilities at both the building and central office level. MDE gave the district the option of funding the central office positions they wanted, if they agreed to reduce funded staff at the school building level.

“BHAS did not choose this option,” DiSessa said.

School Board President Sharon James says the district simply doesn’t have the staff it needs to use the grant to make a difference for students right now. And she says the school board didn’t want to continue using the money and not come into compliance with the grant’s rules.

The district recieved $5.6 million dollars from the grant for the 2014-15 school year.

James is “very hopeful” Michigan’s Department of Education will allow them to keep the grant after next year. “People are advising us at the state level on this,” she said.

MDE is likely to wait until next summer to make an official decision, according to DiSessa, giving the district “some time to get things in order.”

The grant was to pay for technology improvements, professional development, and data coaching for teachers and administrators, a longer school day and school year, and promote incentives for teaching staff.

Giving up the grant does mean other schools will get the money instead. Schools with high rates of students in poverty and those with persistently low academic results are eligible.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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