BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor school officials now have another influential ally in their fight to keep the district independent and viable: the ACLU of Michigan.

On Friday the organization delivered a six-page letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office outlining its support of district efforts to remain open and free of state control.

The letter was signed by Mark P. Fancher, staff attorney for the state’s Racial Justice Project, part of the ACLU of Michigan.

“We strongly urge against any inclination to revive the idea of unilaterally closing the high school, or to resort to state control of the school district in some other form,” Fancher wrote.

The Benton Harbor district and Whitmer administration have been locked in high-stakes negotiations since May, when the governor first proposed closing the high school in 2020. In return, the state offered to alleviate a portion of the district’s $18.4 million in debt, while leaving open the possibility of reopening the high school if test scores and other factors within the district improved. If the district didn’t comply, Whitmer threatened closure of the entire district, leaving students to attend neighboring schools. The governor later backed off on this threat, saying this was not meant to be an ultimatum.

School officials and a contingent of Benton Harbor residents have showed stiff resistance to that initial state push, and negotiations between the state and the district remain in progress. If no agreement is reached, Benton Harbor is likely at some point to run out of money to operate and be forced to dissolve. The stakes have also grown for Whitmer, who has come under growing pressure from around the state to find a workable solution to the “Benton Harbor school crisis,” as it has at times been called.

The ACLU’s Fancher argues that the Benton Harbor district is integral to the community. “Closing the high school would eliminate one of the only remaining educational, cultural and civic centers in a community that has endured decades of discrimination, marginalization and poverty.”

Fancher also took the opportunity to lobby against the appointment of an emergency manager, which historically has “denied the people of that city their democratic rights and democratic participation in government, regardless of one’s opinion about whether it was effective. The school system should not be subjected to the same experience,” he said. Fancher also argues that two successive emergency managers appointed to run the city were not effective, and in fact “made matters worse because they were part of a pattern of state actions that were racially discriminatory.”

In addition, Fancher wrote: “We believe it is an error to reduce the problems of the Benton Harbor school district to the simplistic proposition that the school board through incompetence created a massive debt and is incapable of eliminating it.”

The bottom line, Fancher said, is that the state must work with local officials to improve the district: “If the state comes into Benton Harbor with pre-packaged guidelines, timetables and solutions, it sends the message that the people of the community cannot be trusted to determine their own destiny. The state cannot know the full extent of a community’s creativity and problem-solving ability without first taking the opportunity to spend time developing relationships. It is our hope that your administration will strive to become part of the Benton Harbor family and join them in embracing the institutions they have come to know and love.”