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Benton Harbor schools take “major steps” to avoid possible takeover

In a conference room near Dr. Leonard Seawood's office is a roadmap illustrating how Benton Harbor Area School are planning to get back on track.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
In a conference room near Dr. Leonard Seawood's office is a roadmap illustrating how Benton Harbor Area School are planning to get back on track.

Benton Harbor Area Schools will get results from the state’s preliminary review of the district’s finances this week. The school district blames cash flow problemson a lower-than-expected-student count this fall.

The 30-day preliminary review is the first step in a process to determine if a school district or municipality needs a state-appointed emergency manager. It does not mean one will be appointed for certain.

Since the state launched the preliminary review of Benton Harbor Schools’ finances in mid-November, the school board has cut about a million dollars from the budget. “We have had a pretty busy two weeks or three weeks,” said Benton Harbor Area Schools Superintendent Leonard Seawood.

“Anyone at the state can see that we’ve done absolutely everything that we could do given the situation that we’re in,” Seawood said. He's been superintendent of BHAS for a little more than a year and a half.

He and the school board have agreed to close two schools and lay off 20 employees. Teachers have agreed to work for less money as the district and the union renegotiates a contract with concessions. Seawood is looking to get a 10-percent pay cut for teachers and increase their health care contributions to 20-percent.

The board agreed to demolish some old buildings and list others for sale. BHAS had already privatized bus drivers, custodians, grounds and maintenance and food service.

The City of Benton Harbor has been under emergency manager control for nearly 2 years.

 “(The school board) fully understands how necessary these cuts were in terms of their ability to continue having – for this community to continue to have – local control of this school district,” Seawood said, but admitting “We’re not out of the woods yet.”

The school district is still running a $16 million budget deficit. That's about a third of the district's annual operating budget. Seawood hopes the moves in the last few week will stave off a potential state takeover. The school board also decided to use Plante & Moran for financial services instead of looking for a new CFO right now.

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

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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