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Benton Harbor Area Schools Board looks to restructure

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- At another lengthy special session Monday night, the Benton Harbor Area Schools Board voted to let several staff members go, reassign some others, and heard from concerned community members about the ongoing turnover.

It was a full house at the central administration building on Monday.

Nearly 10 people spoke up during the public comment portion of the meeting, supporting various district staff members who have been in danger of losing their jobs.

Following a closed session with their attorney that lasted nearly 90 minutes, trustees reemerged and voted on several staffing changes.

The board voted unanimously to fire MLK Principal John David VanDyke, effective at the end of the school year.

The resolution explaining his firing listed reasons like a disregard for the safety of students, a lack of instructional leadership, and inappropriate interactions with students, including yelling and inappropriate comments. VanDyke left the meeting before he could be asked for comment.

The board also voted unanimously to terminate the contracts of three other district employees: Julie Earle, Heather Mueller, and Angela Oliva.

Earle has run the 21st Century After School Program in the district for the last five years. It currently has 165 student members and waiting lists at each of its location.

In a live interview after Monday’s meeting, she explained that she found out via a letter on Monday that she was being let go and the 21st Century Program was being shut down.

Shortly after receiving the news, Earle said she received a new letter stating she would still be losing her job, but the 21st Century Program would stay, but be restructured.

“It was a big surprise, especially considering my relationships in the district with all the staff – it’s been a very positive experience,” Earle said. “No one had brought it to my attention, had any conversations with me about any restructuring of the program, about how we might do things differently, if they had any interest in that. And the state’s been very happy with my work and the district has said nothing other than that they’ve been happy with my work, so it came as a shock.”

The board also voted to reassign three administrators who were at risk of being let go.

Bryan Scoggin, Rita Seay and Sharonda Pearson will be staying with the district, but will take on new roles that were not formally announced on Monday.

The board stated that the staff changes had to happen because of needed budget deductions.

According to the board, the district needs an additional $1.3 million for the 2018/2019 budget in order to not be in a deficit, so that’s why these cuts are happening.

But Earle said the decision to let her go confuses her because she and her staff are paid with federal dollars that come from the 21st Century grant. And the program itself is funded entirely by the government, not the district.

Earle said her program even pays the Benton Harbor Area Schools District rent to utilize classrooms.

“We have to look for the overall good of the district,” said Martha Momany, a board trustee, at Monday's meeting. “And this is no joke. This has to be done…we want the district to exist. We don’t want to give anyone the excuse to say we don’t need Benton Harbor Area Schools anymore.”

The next school board meeting will be held on Tuesday, May 1 at Benton Harbor High School at 6 p.m.

In the last few months, the district’s superintendent, high school principal, athletic director and an assistant high school principal have all resigned.

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