State of Michigan to Benton Harbor Public Schools: Close the High School or Have the Whole District Dissolved

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State of Michigan to Benton Harbor Public Schools: Close the High School or Have the Whole District Dissolved

Dylan Marzke, Design Editor

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The Michigan Department of Treasury and Governor Gretchen Whitmer have given The Benton Harbor Public Schools board of trustees until Thursday, June 7 to decide on the future of its district. Announced on May 24, the plan gives Benton Harbor Public Schools an ultimatum: close the high school or risk having the whole district dissolved.

According to the state, zero of the school’s 11th graders in the last 5 years have been college ready and only 3% of its students were reading at grade level in 2018. Whitmer and the Treasury Department also cite the fact that Benton Harbor Public Schools is more than $16 million in debt.

Under the proposed plan, the state will forgive the district’s debt and work with the school’s K-8 curriculum to help prepare Benton Harbor students for high school at one of 8 neighboring districts as well as a new, CTE focused, charter school at Lake Michigan College. The plan also includes free transportation for Benton Harbor students to their new high schools. If the plan is adopted, schools like St. Joseph High School could likely gain 30-40 students and 1 or 2 teachers. As was likely expected, the state’s radical plan for Benton Harbor Public Schools has brought with it pushback from the communities in and around Benton Harbor.

Shortly after the plan was announced, the board of trustees sent a letter to Governor Whitmer which spells out the community’s frustrations. In the letter, the trustees said that they were intentionally left out of the decision making process for the plan and the future of the district. They also said that the plan is a “transfer of wealth from an overwhelmingly poor and black community to nearby white, more affluent communities.”

In a press conference put on by Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad on May 30, a variety of speakers including Benton Harbor High School staff and students spoke out against the plan saying it would weaken the community. Speakers also called the proposal a land grab, a money grab, and a jobs grab. Many also said that the statistics used by the governor’s office are skewed.

“Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure… And they have manipulated the data,” Mayor Muhammad said during the press conference.

Muhammad backed up this claim by referencing the three fifths compromise as well as the history of racist and classist standardized testing. Other community leaders also voiced their concerns with the mixing of the predominantly African American Benton Harbor students with nearby, primarily caucasian, school districts.

“[I don’t want to] see our black children dispersed throughout this county and have to face teachers who don’t give a damn about them,” Pastor Charles Williams, president of the Michigan Chapter of the National Action Network, said at the press conference.

Leaders at the May 30 press conference proposed that instead of closing the high school, the state allow Benton Harbor Public Schools the opportunity to integrate a drafted Fresh Start Resolution. The resolution asks the state to forgive the school’s debt while the board addresses its deficit by “reducing staff and eliminating positions that support students.” It also asks the state to reconsider how it funds public schools as they claim the current system cripples districts that serve minority students. The state has not yet responded to the Fresh Start Resolution.