During a heated town hall in Benton Harbor, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer proposed what she called a “reboot” of the city’s financially troubled high school system to a largely skeptical — and occasionally hostile — crowd.
Concerned Benton Harbor citizens spoke out Wednesday against the state’s plan to shut down the Southwest Michigan city’s high school at the Brotherhood of All Nations Church, as the Benton Harbor Area Schools (BHAS) face crippling debt and continue to underachieve academically.
Whitmer, along with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, state Treasurer Rachel Eubanks and state School Reform Officer Bill Pearson attended a town hall meeting that lasted more than two hours, as part of an effort to show residents that their concerns were being heard by state government.
The city of Benton Harbor was under state emergency management from April 2010 to March 2014 and it became a flashpoint for former Gov. Rick Snyder.
Speaking before about 200 people, Whitmer stressed that she’s fighting against the state’s normal course of action when a district is facing large amounts of debt: “dissolution,” or permanently closing the district.
“Generally, in circumstances like these in the past, it’s been a rush to dissolve a district and that’s what I’m trying to avoid,” Whitmer told reporters on Tuesday evening following the meeting, reiterating something she’d expressed to residents multiple times during the town hall.
“I don’t want to dissolve the district of Benton Harbor. I want to make sure we’re successful and it takes tough decisions on a number of fronts. But at the end of every day, I’m going to do what I think is in the best interest of the kids in the state.”
Whitmer told the audience that she believes the GOP-led Legislature is already having discussions about dissolving the entire district. She stressed that she alone can’t wipe out its debt, which the state says totals $18.4 million.
Instead, the Whitmer administration says it’s put forward a “bold solution” that would entail cutting the district’s public high schools while it continued to operate its K-8 system. Crucially, Whitmer said her plan would leave open the possibility of the high school being “rebooted,” in contrast with the state’s usual strategy of permanent dissolution.
Benton Harbor high school students would, in the meantime, attend nearby districts including Niles, St. Joseph and Coloma, which have pledged their support.
The plan requires approval from local school board officials, who to this point have been resistant. The governor has set a deadline of June 14 by which the district can accept her plan or propose a “viable” option.
Whitmer’s plan would also give students the option of receiving career technical education (CTE) and earning college credits at Lake Michigan College, a community college in nearby Benton Township.
Pearson, the state’s school reform officer, said Wednesday that it costs about twice as much to operate a high school as it does to provide K-8 education.
The state’s proposed plan would include transportation for students to their school of choice, at no cost to families.
Whitmer’s proposal is backed by the Michigan Education Association (MEA). In a statement, MEA President Paula Herbart called the proposal less than “ideal, but it’s the best solution for students and families.”
The struggling school district faces both a “financial crisis” and an “academic crisis,” according to the state. State officials said the district’s accumulated debt load is $18.4 million, meaning the district currently spends $700 per student to pay back its debt each year.
Currently only 3 percent of its third graders can read at the level expected by the Michigan Department of Education (MDE). And, strikingly, there have been no 11th graders deemed “college-ready” over the last five years according to a report from the state.
Whitmer acknowledged the challenges inherent to sending students from a city that’s about 90 percent African American to far whiter districts. The solution, she said, would hopefully be temporary until the school reopens.
Residents in Benton Harbor expressed skepticism about the state’s data, some calling it “offensive” and untrustworthy. Whitmer told the crowd it was drawn directly from state testing results.
To Tanae Allen, a Benton Harbor High School (BHHS) student, the push to close the school was a sign of the state’s disrespect and underestimation of Benton Harbor students.
“Like I said in the beginning, they don’t know us,” Allen said during the meeting. “Numbers do not define our intelligence. We are way smarter than you guys make us out to be.”
History of closures
In the past, the state has repeatedly dissolved school districts in a similar fashion to that proposed by Whitmer’s administration. In 2013, Michigan passed a law that shuttered the Inkster School District in Wayne County and Buena Vista Schools in Saginaw County.
A report earlier this year from the nonpartisan policy group Citizens Research Council of Michigan (CRC) examined those two closures, finding their impacts were largely mixed.
“While the policy was partially successful from a financial perspective, it came at a great expense to students and their families in Buena Vista and Inkster,” the report said.
The report’s author, Research Director Craig Thiel, told the Advance on Wednesday morning that he believes the situation in Benton Harbor could be different.
“Whether [students] will get the services they need that will be unique to their learning needs … that’s yet to be determined,” said Thiel.
“Clearly, I think this proposal has those neighboring districts on board and accepting these kids and doing everything in their power to address their learning needs,” he said. “Those types of considerations weren’t in place with Buena Vista and Inkster.”
Whitmer stressed that she wants to see Benton Harbor’s high school eventually reopen, but that it would depend on academic and financial factors. The Legislature would be required to pass a bill in order to clear the school’s debt.
For now, Whitmer said that unless someone else comes forward with a “viable” option, her plan is all that’s on the table.
“We see this [plan] as an opportunity to leap forward in the interim and give high school students real opportunity at [other schools], that is good in the short term,” Whitmer said. “But the long-term, hopefully, is that Benton Harbor schools turn around, become financially solvent and we’re in a position to really reboot a high school.”