BENTON HARBOR — “It’s on.”
That’s what Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said Thursday during a news conference opposing a plan to shut down Benton Harbor High School in 2020 that came from the state Department of Treasury and the office of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer last Friday. The state has given Benton Harbor school board trustees until June 7 to agree to the plan or the entire district could me closed or chartered.
Some speakers called the plan a land grab, with officials wanting the land the high school sits on because it’s relatively close to the St. Joseph River.
Other speakers said it’s a jobs grab because the people who work at the high school will have to go elsewhere for employment.
Still others said it’s a money grab because the state funds education based on the number of students each school district has.
Muhammad said they would do whatever it takes to let Whitmer know that there will be consequences if the high school is closed, including withdrawing economic support from her.
Some of the speakers called for Whitmer to attend a public meeting Benton Harbor school board trustees have scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday at the high school.
In an emailed statement, a representative for Whitmer said she won’t be at Tuesday’s meeting, but will be “in the city in the near future to meet with and hear from the community and local leaders regarding the proposed plan.”
Also, local pastors have scheduled a news conference for 3 p.m. today at McCoy Memorial Church of God in Christ, 1840 Union Ave., Benton Township.
Muhammad said that the data used by state officials to justify closing the high school is based on standardized test scores that can be skewed.
“Figures don’t lie, but liars can figure,” he said. “And they have manipulated the data.”
At one time, he said data listed African Americans as “three-fifths of a human being.” He said his grandfather, who lived in Mississippi, told him about the “jelly bean” test given many years ago, in which prospective voters were asked to guess how many jelly beans were in a jar. If he didn’t give the right answer, he was told he couldn’t vote.
“We know the history of your standardized testing,” he said.
High school teacher Marilyn Ross-Golden said she respectfully invites Whitmer to visit her at the high school to see the students.
“According to the officials from the governor’s office and their team, zero ... of our 11th graders for the last five years are college ready,” she said. “Gov. Whitmer, I stand looking in your face tonight. I’m not certain what data you used for those years that you deemed that my kids were not college ready. But I have some data for you that is real data. It’s unbiased. And it’s reliable.”
She said the governor and her team need to gather information from the country’s universities about students who came from Benton Harbor High School.
“You will find those juniors for the last five years that you have deemed not college ready,” she said. “... And some of those people have graduated. Hands off Benton Harbor High School, Gov. Whitmer.”
Ross-Golden said the high school’s graduating seniors have received thousands of dollars in scholarships to attend college.
The state plan calls for the high school students to be sent to eight surrounding high schools and a newly created charter school.
Pastor Charles Williams, president of the Michigan Chapter of the National Action Network, said he doesn’t want to “see our black children dispersed throughout this county and have to face teachers who don’t give a damn about them.”
“When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And Gov. Whitmer, we are here to tell you today you’re wrong,” he said.
He said his organization will be back to support Benton Harbor.
“We’re not stupid,” he said. “We know what you’re doing in Benton Harbor because we know what happens in Benton Harbor is only a test case for what they’re going to do in Pontiac, what they’re going to do in Flint, what they’re going to do in Detroit.”
Ross-Golden compared dispersing the high school students to surrounding schools to the Conference of Berlin 1884-85, where Europeans met to divide the interior of Africa.
She said state officials met with select community leaders in Benton Harbor the day before the announcement was made to figure out how to divide the students. Benton Harbor school board trustees were not invited and the media was kicked out.
“That’s not going to happen,” she said.
Two members of the state Board of Education attended the news conference. Pam Pugh, vice president of the board, said she was there to listen “just like anyone with a sound mind in Lansing should want to do.”
“I’m here fighting for you. I’m fighting with you,” she said. “... There’s always this attack on black, brown and low-income communities.”
State Board member Tiffany Tilley said taking a high school out of a community is “as violent and brutal as ripping a baby out of a mother’s arms.”
She said Benton Harbor has asked for adequate resources to educate the children.
“If we want out schools in low income areas to do better, we have to do better with funding them,” she said. “The way that we currently are fund our schools in Michigan under Proposal A is failing them.”
Tilley said the state has offered to eliminate most of the school district’s $16 million debt if the Benton Harbor board approves the state’s plan.
“But at what cost to the community?” she said. “For too long, the state has intervened in the dismantling and destruction of education in poor, minority communities.”
Pastor Taurus Montgomery of Harbor of Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church in Benton Harbor held a prayer initiative before the news conference. He gave the attendees several action steps they can take to help the school district.
• Attend the public school board meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday at Benton Harbor High School.
• Share ideas at a brainstorming session at 6 p.m. Thursday at the church, 769 Pipestone St.
• Host or attend a Benton Harbor High School “fight” party to call state elected officials and ask them not to shut the school down.
Elnora Gavin, a former teacher at the high school, said more ways to help can be found on the Facebook page of Peace4LifeBH.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege