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Benton Harbor school board holds special meeting to discuss future of high school

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbor Area Schools administrative office

Members of the school board for Benton Harbor Area Schools say they plan to submit a plan to Governor Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday to try to save the city’s high school.

The governor’s office says the district is $18.4 million in debt. She says closing the high school will save money and keep the entire district from dissolving. 

At a special board meeting Monday night, the school board circulated a three-page “open letter” to the governor that claimed they have a plan to handle the district’s financial troubles and still keep the high school open. Board members said at Monday's meeting that they have another meeting scheduled Wednesday with Gov. Whitmer. A spokeswoman for the governor said she couldn't confirm any scheduled meeting, but a spokesman for the state Treasury department says there is a meeting scheduled with officials there.

The board says it has already passed a balanced budget for next school year, and it’s working to refinance its debt to so that debt repayments don’t overwhelm the district in the following year.

Board vice president Joseph Taylor estimates the refinancing will save the district $300,000.

"We don't have a crystal ball. We just have our hearts set to save our school district," says Benton Harbor school board vice president Joseph Taylor.

But he says he has no idea whether the governor’s office will accept the plan, or what happens if it doesn’t.

“The governor only gave us one week,” Taylor said. “So we take in what we take in, and we’ll see from there, right? We’re not - We don’t have a crystal ball. We just have our hearts set to save our school district.”

The governor says a deal needs to be reached by Friday.

At Monday’s meeting, many in the community spoke in favor of the board. But a few said the open letter didn’t have enough specifics.

“It’s got to be a solid, concrete plan together, so that they can trust us enough to stay open,” said Roosevelt Bell, who asked that community members be allowed to work on a plan with the board.

Instead, the board voted to go into a closed session to discuss the specific financial proposals that it will send to the governor.

When the board reopened the meeting to the public, members announced they also had just accepted the resignation of the district’s superintendent, Robert Herrera.

Herrera had previously announced he would be leaving, but left the timing open.

On Monday, school board members said Herrera had submitted a resignation letter to them, effective that day. And, he handed over the powers delegated to him in a “cooperative agreement” that BHAS has with the state.

“In Dr. Herrera’s resignation, he gave the board all of his duties and powers based on the cooperative agreement,” said Taylor.

The board nominated Patricia Robinson to serve as interim superintendent.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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