Benton Harbor officials tear into Whitmer in fight to save high school

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

Benton Harbor officials and residents are calling on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to back off her plan to close the Southwest Michigan city’s high school.

As the Advance reported last week, the state argues that Benton Harbor Area Schools (BHAS) are in both a “financial crisis” and “academic crisis.”

Benton Harbor residents vent to Whitmer about high school closure

To help alleviate those crises, the state says the district should operate with only a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade system in an effort to correct course. The BHAS high school, meanwhile, would close and students would attend — at their choosing — a school in one of eight neighboring districts or earn college credit at a regional community college.

But at a town hall in Benton Harbor last week, several residents and officials slammed Whitmer’s plan. On Tuesday, they traveled to Lansing and held a protest outside Whitmer’s office in the Romney Building, across the street from the state Capitol.

Tanae Allen, a Benton Harbor High School student, speaks at the Brotherhood of All Nations Church in Benton Harbor | Nick Manes

They say they hope the governor works with them on a locally proposed plan to turn around the district the state says faces $18 million in debt and where only 3% of third-grade readers can read at acceptable levels. Many local officials, however, call those numbers into question and say that the state can work with the community if it wishes.

“We’re asking for the governor, her staff and the Legislature to be restorative, not punitive,” Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad told reporters on Tuesday.

Muhammad and other speakers likened Whitmer’s proposal to close the high school — which she says could reopen in the future — to the emergency manager law signed by former Gov. Rick Snyder. The law allows the governor to appoint an official to oversee local units of government and take over finances, essentially usurping local control.

The city of Benton Harbor was under an emergency manager from April 2010 through March 2014.

Rick Snyder | Michigan Municipal League, Flickr

“We have witnessed and have been victims of the harsh draconian policies from the Snyder administration,” Muhammad said. “And everywhere the footprints and the fingerprints of the state of Michigan have been, it’s a disaster.”

During last week’s town hall Whitmer pitched her proposal — simply closing the high school with the possibility that it could re-open — to residents as an improvement over the state’s decision in the past to simply dissolve whole districts. Whitmer stressed that she wants to avoid that option.

On Monday night, however, during a special meeting of the Benton Harbor school board, BHAS board members released an open letter to Whitmer proposing a third option.

Board members said want to see the high school remain open and have “strong collaboration” with the governor’s office, as well as state and federal agencies.

Benton Harbor High School | Nick Manes

That strong collaboration, the letter says, would have “accountability on all sides” and seek to address the state’s concerns, including academics and instruction, leadership, finances and student needs.

Whitmer last week gave Benton Harbor officials until this coming Friday to reach a deal and the governor remains open to other solutions, said spokeswoman Tiffany Brown. Whitmer is scheduled to meet with Muhammad on Tuesday afternoon and school board officials on Wednesday.

So far, however, the governor is standing firm on her proposal to close the facility.

“The plan the state put on the table is the only solution we’ve found that puts students first and tackles the financial problems the Benton Harbor district is facing,” Brown wrote to the Advance in an email, noting that under the state’s plan, the local school district would continue to control the land the school sits on, even if it closes.

A protest of the proposed closure of Benton Harbor High School, Lansing, June 11, 2019 | Nick Manes

Still, Benton Harbor residents and officials are fearful that there’s a “land grab” at play and the local high school is the target of real estate developers, Muhammad said, threatening to block future development projects if the high school is closed.

“If Benton Harbor High School is going to be scrapped and put to the side … then all development will come to a screeching halt,” Muhammad said. “If you think that’s a threat, it’s not a threat. We’re backed by an entire 10,000 [people]. We just represent them today.”

Other community leaders speaking on Tuesday expressed concern with sending students from a city with 90% African American population to surrounding, largely white, school districts.

“You cannot send black kids to rural school districts and say that is for their own good,” said the Rev. David Bullock of the Change Agent Coalition in Benton Harbor.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist at the Brotherhood of All Nations Church in Benton Harbor | Nick Manes

During a news conference last week following her Benton Harbor town hall, Whitmer acknowledged those worries.

“I understand the concerns and it is absolutely commensurate with what we know to be true,” Whitmer told the Advance.

“When an African American child goes to a predominantly white school, there are a lot of racial issues that they’re going to confront and that we as a society have to alleviate,” Whitmer continued. “I think that’s something that over the course of the next year we’re going to work with the community to make sure we’ve done everything we can to have the guardrails up so that students have every odd in their favor [for] success.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers 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. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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