Benton Harbor rejects Whitmer’s deal to keep high school open

By: - July 3, 2019 2:50 pm

Mayor Marcus Muhammad speaks at a protest of the proposed closure of Benton Harbor High School, Lansing, June 11, 2019 | Nick Manes

The Benton Harbor School Board rejected on Tuesday night an agreement that would have given the city a one-year window in which to make improvements that would keep its only public high school open, as residents and community leaders continue to resist any plan that could lead to a closure.

Speaking with the Advance Wednesday morning, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said that the state’s one-year timeframe is unrealistic and would almost inevitably lead to the high school’s closure — a prediction experts have mostly agreed with, saying a sustainable turnaround could take years.

Muhammad stressed that the district currently lacks the resources to meet state-suggested benchmarks like finding a “highly qualified superintendent,” adopting a balanced budget and increasing teacher compensation. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s original proposal would have closed Benton Harbor’s high school, with no clear plan for its re-opening. That proved so incendiary that Whitmer herself appeared at a town hall to field questions in an attempt to soothe residents’ fears.

Benton Harbor residents vent to Whitmer about high school closure

According to the state, Benton Harbor Area Schools (BHAS) is more than $18 million in debt.

“It’s not that the school board, community, office of the mayor, or city council, it’s not that we don’t want to work with the … state of Michigan,” Muhammad said. “It’s the terms [of the proposed deal] that are causing problems for the entire community. What is being presented and proposed is unrealistic. It’s an unfunded mandate.”

Instead, Muhammad said the threat of any shutdown needs “to be taken off the table,” and the district needs at least three years to work with the state on its benchmarks.

Whitmer in Benton Harbor
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer speaks at the Brotherhood of All Nations Church in Benton Harbor | Nick Manes

In an email to the Advance, Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said the administration is in the process of “reviewing all of the potential options on how to move forward with identifying a solution that puts Benton Harbor students first.”

In a prior statement Brown said the administration was disappointed by the board’s rejection of their plan, but that the governor will continue to search for an outcome amenable to both parties.

“The Benton Harbor School Board’s action to vote down the resolution to put students first is a setback for Benton Harbor students, parents, and the community,” Brown said in a prior statement. 

“By voting not to accept this proposal — which was developed with direct input from BHAS board members and attorneys — board members are sending a troubling signal to parents that they are unwilling to negotiate in good faith to address the district’s academic and financial challenges,” Brown wrote. “The governor remains committed to finding a solution that puts Benton Harbor students first.”

Brown also pointed to an email sent last week by Patricia Rush, a member of the city’s school board, in which she told the Whitmer administration that the board planned to vote in favor of Whitmer’s one-year plan. 

Attempts to reach school board members were unsuccessful, but Muhammad called it “bush league” to release such an email. Muhammad claimed the full board never agreed to adopt such a resolution.

The Southwest Michigan mayor isn’t alone in thinking that one year wouldn’t be enough to achieve a substantial turnaround of Benton Harbor’s schools, located in one of the state’s poorest cities with a population that’s roughly 90% African-American. 

A cooperative agreement reached last year between BHAS and the state’s School Reform Office suggested that such a “strategic plan” would need to run through the 2022-23 school year to fully address academic performance. 

Craig Thiel, research director with the nonpartisan think tank Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said that the state’s benchmark goals would likely need “more meat” to be successful, and concurred that one year of reform is unlikely to result in much change. 

“Things like staffing up the district with highly-qualified teachers … you can have a one-year goal, but I don’t know that you can move the needle significantly in one year’s time,” Thiel said. “Especially if there’s no new operational resources to pay those people.”

Benton Harbor High School
Benton Harbor High School | Nick Manes

It’s not clear how negotiations will proceed after the board’s rejection. Whitmer has stressed that she does not wish to see the entire district dissolved, as has been done in the past with the Buena Vista and Inkster school districts. 

Her administration contends that closing the high school — and giving students the option to attend other nearby districts, which have signaled their support for the plan — would maximize cost savings. 

Two members of the governor’s administration, the state superintendent of public instruction and the state treasurer, each have the power to dissolve a school district. 

Benton Harbor Mayor Muhammad said there’s no reason it needs to come to a closure of the high school or dissolution of the district. Rather, he says his community wants to see a good-faith effort by the governor’s office to work hand-in-hand with the district to address the problems, something he says hasn’t happened yet.

“There has to be a real desire to have Benton Harbor High School — Benton Harbor Area Schools — be successful. And I don’t see that coming from the governor’s staff,” Muhammad said. “I see more of a change of strategy as opposed to a change of heart. And the initial strategy was to shut down the high school.”

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.