BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor school board trustees Friday rejected the state’s plan to close Benton Harbor High School in 2020.

Vice President Joseph Taylor said the trustees preferred not to respond to the proposal released by the state on May 24 “because the board believes that a response may likely divide our community and create an adversarial relationship with the governor’s office and the other state officials.”

However, he said they were told that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office wanted a formal response by Friday.

“We will not agree to the proposed plan, which includes closing the high school within the district and busing our students to other school districts within the county,” Taylor read from a prepared resolution. “The board believes that it is in the best interests of all involved to continue to work together with state officials.”

The state, which had previously set Friday as the final day the board could act, took no official action to resolve the matter.

An emailed statement from the governor’s office stated: “Governor Whitmer, Lieutenant Governor (Garlin) Gilchrist, and Treasurer (Rachel) Eubanks have spent the past few weeks listening to Benton Harbor school board members, community leaders, students, and parents to hear their thoughts and ideas. The governor’s number one priority is putting students first and making sure every child in Benton Harbor has a path to postsecondary success.

“The state is currently reviewing the plan that the Benton Harbor school board put on the table this week, and the governor plans to continue working with the school board to ensure K-8 students have the support they need and to ensure high school students are on track to graduate postsecondary with a degree or skills certification.”

After Friday’s meeting, board President Stephen Mitchell said state officials liked the plan trustees presented to them in Lansing on Wednesday.

“They wanted some additional meat put on the bones, so to speak,” he said. “We’re going to revise it somewhat to accommodate MDE’s (Michigan Department of Education) concerns. That will be included into the plan. 

When Whitmer visited Benton Harbor June 5, she said the traditional route for school districts with high debt and low student achievement is to either dissolve or become a charter district. She said closing the high school would allow school officials to concentrate on grades K-8. Once student achievement improved and the debt was paid off, she said the high school might reopen.

In exchange, Eubanks said up to $11 million of the district’s $18.4 million debt could possibly be eliminated, depending on how much transition assistance state legislators decide the district needs.

At the time, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said he supported the state’s proposal.

“This is a thoughtful plan that ensures a Benton Harbor K-8 district and will provide every student better opportunities to graduate and prepare for his or her career plan,” he said. “The alternative is dissolution. While we acknowledge that as an option, we are hopeful the local school board will support the state’s plan and do the right thing for the students and families of Benton Harbor.”

The district is set to return to full local control on June 30, when the state school reform office is disbanded due to changes in the law.

Benton Harbor residents have made it clear at multiple town hall meetings that they don’t want the high school to be closed, fearing that their students would encounter racism and bullying at the surrounding mostly white high schools. 

Benton Harbor High School is more than 90 percent black while the eight high schools the state proposes to send the students to are mostly white.

Trustees voted unanimously to reject the state plan after meeting with their attorney in closed session. Secretary Patricia Rush and Trustee Matthew Bradley participated via phone.

In addition, Taylor read a letter from Michigan State Board of Education Vice President Pam Pugh, who stated she supports the plan the trustees presented to the state earlier in the week.

“I’m beyond proud of this board’s unity and determination to fight for the children of Benton Harbor,” her letter stated. “The tenacity of this board is reflected in this plan aimed at moving the district towards strong financial footing and which seeks to aggressively address the well being and academic outcomes of Benton Harbor Area Schools students.”

After the vote, Trustee Lue Buchana encouraged everyone to get involved in the students’ lives.

“Our kids are hurting,” she said. “They’ve got nothing to do.”

She also said people in the community need to start helping each other rather than spreading rumors.

Taylor said the trustees can’t turn the district around on their own. He said the trustees are going to form committees so parents and residents to get involved.

“This is all hands on deck,” he said. “This is not the board of education. This is our community.”

He said all communities in the school district need to get involved, not just the city of Benton Harbor.

“I’m so glad this did happen because it woke up a sleeping giant,” he said.

Taylor said people are calling from across the country, asking how they can help.

“I think we’re going to have one of the best districts when this is over with because we’re going to be together,” he said. 

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege