BENTON HARBOR — Benton Harbor school board trustees are asking Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to reconsider a plan announced Friday that would force trustees to agree to close Benton Harbor High School in 2020 or risk the entire school district being closed or chartered by the state.
State officials have given trustees until the close of business June 7 to decide.
The trustees sent the request in an open letter to Whitmer Monday, which included an invitation for her to attend a public meeting at 6 p.m. June 4 at Benton Harbor High School, where the future of the high school and the rest of the school district will be discussed.
In the letter, the trustees state that they were told by the governor’s staff that they were intentionally kept out of the decision-making process about what is best for the school district. Trustees state in the letter that they have been working with the state Department of Education and Department of Treasury in good faith and had submitted an outline for a new strategic plan.
In a separate action, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad is holding a press conference at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Benton Harbor City Hall to discuss the state’s proposal.
In the state’s plan, students attending the high school and the district’s alternative school would attend one of eight local high schools or a new charter school at Lake Michigan College called Lake Michigan Academy. If the plan is adopted, the state will pay transportation costs for Benton Harbor High School students to attend school elsewhere.
Word that the state was trying to close the high school started circulating on Facebook last Thursday morning after Muhammad posted on his Facebook page that he can’t “in any shape form or fashion support the dissolution of Benton Harbor High School.”
Later Thursday afternoon, a Herald-Palladium reporter was kicked out of a meeting at a Benton Harbor church by state officials, who were meeting with select Benton Harbor pastors and community leaders. They said they hadn’t met with Benton Harbor school board trustees, yet, so didn’t want the media covering the meeting. The state officials said a news release would be sent to media outlets the next afternoon after state officials met with the Benton Harbor school board trustees in Lansing in the morning.
Benton Harbor School Board President Stephen Mitchell said last Thursday that he had no idea what the state officials were talking about. He said Trustee Joseph Taylor, board vice president, and Trustee Patricia Rush, board secretary, were traveling to Lansing for a Friday morning meeting. But he said it had nothing to do with the possible closing of the high school. He said the meeting had been scheduled weeks ago to discuss how the district can handle its $16 million debt.
The state Department of Treasury sent out the press release about the proposal to “suspend operations” at the high school Friday afternoon. More information about the proposed plan can be found at Michigan.gov/BentonHarborSchools.
Members of the Michigan State Board of Education are also unhappy with the state’s proposal and how it was made.
The day before the state made the announcement, they sent a letter to Whitmer, stating that they opposed the plan, in part, because Benton Harbor school board trustees had been kept out of the decision making process.
When contacted by phone Friday night, Pam Pugh, vice president of the State Board of Education, said they approved the letter at a retreat May 21.
“We should never make a decision that critical without community input,” she said.
In the letter Benton Harbor school board trustees sent to Whitmer, they said the closing of the high school is a land grab and will “transfer of wealth from an overwhelmingly poor and black community (Benton Harbor) to nearby white, more affluent communities.”
They called on Whitmer to keep her campaign promise to fight poverty and to support local schools.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege