By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium
BENTON TOWNSHIP — For more than three hours, Benton Harbor Area School officials spoke, asked questions, and took suggestions from area businesses about a proposed partnership agreement designed to save the district.
Benton Harbor Superintendent Shelly Walker led the discussion in a conference room inside the Mendel Center, while community and business representatives, page by page, read through the first draft of the agreement Wednesday.
Walker told attendees the agreement was the district’s way of gaining financial support from the community and area businesses. She said the district hopes partners would serve all five schools in the district, and not just the three schools being targeted by the state.
With several documents produced at the meeting, about nine businesses and organizations were listed as partners.
After the meeting, Walker said there were more partners that showed interest last week. However, due to the quick turnaround from last week’s meeting, Walker said they didn’t have enough time to respond.
“The more you can collaborate and work with others, the better outcomes you will always get,” Walker said. “I anticipate there is going to be more businesses to partner with. But for now, I’m hoping people will have time to digest everything.”
This was the second partnership agreement meeting, which took place a week from the first one.
Last Thursday, representatives from the state’s School Reform Office said the school district needed to enter into a partnership with the Michigan Department of Education by April 30. Otherwise, the Dream Academy would be closed and a CEO would be appointed to take charge of International Academy at Hull and STEAM at MLK after the school year ends.
The partnership agreement was handed out to attendees, a section at a time, to look over for inspection. Each person in attendance was given a lunch to eat and openly discussed the benchmarks and goals laid out for potential partners – including the superintendent and Board of Education – that would need to be accomplished in 18- and 36-month intervals.
These goals and benchmarks were created based on what businesses said they would be willing to do, following last week’s meeting.
By using a statistical approach to project where the district’s students should be within the next 18 and 36 months, various goals for the three schools in questions were laid out in reference to proficiency and growth.
“I am not happy with 30 percent proficiency, but statistically speaking, this is where we need to be,” Walker said.
Michigan Department of Education Superintendent Brian Whiston said as everyone goes through the process, the state and the district is going to learn what works and what doesn’t.
“They (BHAS administration) are doing things we would do with this partnership agreement,” Whiston assured the meeting’s attendees. “I don’t ever want the state to take over the district. That would not be in the students’ best interest.”
A new perspective
With a change of venue, there also seemed to be a change in tone among attendees.
After the meeting, BHAS Board President Joseph Taylor said he thought the second round of talks was more effective than what transpired last Thursday.
“I think this time around, Superintendent Whiston put the guns down and we all came out with a new perspective,” Taylor said. “He had a changed attitude from last week’s meeting. The agreement was probably 80 percent good and maybe 20 percent bad.”
In reference to this, Taylor said there were certain items the Board of Education did not agree with.
“We had a problem with the superintendent’s goals as well as the board’s (goals),” Taylor said. “They (the state) have overstepped their bounds on some of the items they’ve wanted the board to do. … However, I feel confident the agreement will be signed. We just have a couple line items we have to work on to make it feasible for all concerns.
“The bottom line for this agreement, is student achievement.”
All interested partners will next meet with school officials at 10 a.m. April 25 in a yet-to-be-chosen location. Walker told attendees they had until April 7 to send anymore suggestions to the district before a final draft is created.
Walker said what’s driving the early deadline for the agreement to be signed is the school millage that will be voted on during a May 2 special election.
By having a partnership agreement signed and in place, Walker said she hopes voters will feel more assured in voting in favor of the millage.
In January, SRO released a list of 38 schools, including three in Benton Harbor, that are on its list to be closed or put under a CEO because they have been in the bottom 5 percent of the state’s Top-To-Bottom list for three consecutive years.
Dream Academy was a charter school until it joined Benton Harbor Area Schools in the fall as the district’s alternative high school.
The other two schools on the list were reconfigured in the fall so all students in kindergarten through second grade attend Hull, and students in third through fifth grades attend STEAM. Before that, both schools taught first through eighth grades.
(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on March 30, 2017)