BENTON HARBOR — No justice, no peace – and no agreement.

That was the message from Benton Harbor school board trustees and their supporters at Tuesday’s defiant school board meeting.

Trustees unanimously voted to reject a proposal from the governor’s office that would have required the board to agree to “suspend” operations at Benton Harbor High School in one year if certain academic and financial benchmarks weren’t reached. 

This is the second time trustees have voted down a proposal from the state. The first proposal was released May 24 and voted down on June 14. That one would have suspended operations at the high school in 2020 so the school district could focus on raising student achievement in K-8 and on reducing the district’s $18.4 million debt. 

A sizable crowd of Benton Harbor residents strongly urged trustees to say no to the proposal.

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said it takes a minimum of three years to turn a school around.

“This is a plan to fail,” he said. “Also, shut-down is off the table. This community will not and does not support any tentative agreement, plan, proposal with shut-down on the table.”

The mayor said the community should consider legal action.

“A class-action lawsuit definitely is appropriate,” he said. 

The Rev. Carlton Lynch of Pilgrim Rest Church in Benton Township said Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to say that people have three options – negotiate, demonstrate and then resist.

“It seems as though we are beyond negotiations,” he said. “... Tonight, business as usual is over. ... Negotiations are over. It’s now time to demonstrate.”

Resident Appolonia Williams said she has more than one child in the school district and doesn’t want to see it closed.

“It’s not going to end until that lady (Gov. Gretchen Whitmer) leaves this school open and leaves us alone,” said Williams

School board Secretary Patricia Rush, who traveled to Lansing June 26 to discuss the proposal, said she has never been treated as poorly as the staff at the governor’s office has been treating the trustees. Rush said the governor’s staff has been disrespectful and intimidating.

Rush said that during the recent Lansing meeting, she and the other school officials who went with her were given two items – the proposal and a list of potential turnaround partners.

“It was never discussed with us. We never agreed to any of it,” she said. “And yet, before we were able to get in the car to drive home from Lansing, this was put out to the media by the governor’s office.”

Rush said Whitmer’s staff put out the lie that the trustees had agreed to the tentative proposal.

“In the last 24 hours, I have personally received over 20 communications, including some threatening communications, from people who believed that the board had sold the community out,” she said.

When contacted after the meeting, Tiffany Brown, Whitmer’s spokeswoman, sent an email that included Rush’s response to that June 26 meeting, and pointing out the contradiction (see sidebar). 

The state’s proposal calls for the school district to increase pay to teachers to the Berrien RESA average. Trustees said this would require a minimum of $1.3 million to meet this directive.

Copies of the proposed plan were made available to the public.

In the proposed plan, benchmarks the district would have to achieve in one year include:

• decreasing the percentage of chronically absent students by 25 percent;

• increasing the number of certified teachers by 25 percent;

• reducing the use of long-term substitutes by 20 percent;

• increasing student growth in math and English on the state’s standardized tests by at least 3 percent.

Financial benchmarks that would have to be reached in one year include: 

• hiring a highly qualified superintendent and chief financial officer and retaining them for one year;

• decreasing the percentage of the district’s budget used for non-instructional expenditures by at least 10 percent.

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