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Finance director: Benton Harbor Area Schools could be $600,000 in debt due to administration error

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — Members of the Benton Harbor community voiced more concerns Tuesday night, as the fight to save their schools gets bigger.

“It just seems unreasonable that superintendents with impeccable and no criminal records decide to take charge of Benton Harbor Area Schools (BHAS) and all of a sudden decide to become criminals,” said one parent.

Money woes are now the latest battle the district is facing, after learning the administration potentially mishandled the budget.

Last week, the board tasked the new finance director Carolyn Gibbs with recalculating the financial and operating plan (FOP) because they had no idea how much was in the general fund.

Members of the board say suspended Superintendent Shelly Walker had been borrowing from different accounts to pay the district’s bills.

After some digging, Gibbs says BHAS could now be $600,000 in debt from the 2017/2018 budget.

Board trustees say they had been left in the dark.

“We’ve not known really, we’ve had that debt,” said trustee Joseph Taylor. “So now finally someone has come to the table and really dug deep and has been transparent. They’re going to go back and reshuffle the numbers to make sure that’s correct.”

Gibbs also says an error could cost the district a portion of the $2 million safety and gang prevention grant.

According to her, only $100,000 of it was spent last year.

$1.9 million was forecasted to be spent in 2018.

$500,000 of that was moved to be spent on counseling services from the Riverwood Center.

But Gibbs says that transaction happened twice and an additional $500,000 was accidentally moved.

Interim Superintendent Patricia Robinson says there have been serious miscommunication issues between departments in the administration that led to some of these errors.

Before this information was released, the community weighed in on the state of the district.

“This is not about us, this is about our community and we don’t do each other that way and if we do, we make it right,” community member Marian Tripplett told the board Tuesday.

Tripplett is a the wife of former high school principal Rodger Tripplett.

He was fired in December 2016 under Superintendent Walker.

She and Rodger asked that the board make amends with their family, now that Walker has been placed on leave.

But there was also support for Walker Tuesday night.

About a dozen teachers wore purple in solidarity for the suspended superintendent.

One read a letter signed by 51 teachers across three schools.

Part of it read:

“We know her leadership is not in question, but we felt compelled to share the kind of leader we have in  Dr. Walker to help the “powers to be” understand that she is right person for Benton Harbor Area Schools district and its staff, our community, and more importantly for our students. We humbly ask for your support and help and return our superintendent to our district and students."

The group plans to send that letter to the Michigan Department of Education.

Read the full letter here:

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