BENTON HARBOR — State officials gave Benton Harbor school board trustees a choice Friday – agree to close Benton Harbor High School in the fall of 2020 or the entire school district may be closed or chartered.

Benton Harbor school board President Stephen Mitchell said state officials have given the board until June 7 to make a decision. He said the board will schedule town hall meetings to discuss the proposal with the public. Trustees are meeting this morning for a training session with the Michigan Association of School Boards. Mitchell said he’s uncertain if the trustees will talk about the state’s proposal at that meeting.

He said he’s personally against closing the high school, but still needs to talk with the other trustees.

The Michigan Department of Treasury announced the plan Friday afternoon after meeting with two of the seven Benton Harbor school board trustees in Lansing earlier in the morning. The release stated that something had to be done because for the past five years, zero 11th grade students in the school district tested as college-ready. In addition, it stated that only 3 percent of third graders could read at grade level in 2018.

In the plan, students from the high 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 in other districts.

Lake Michigan Academy would be a CTE-focused and early/middle college high school with the option to adopt the Tigers mascot. In a telephone interview Thursday, LMC President Trevor Kubatzke said that if the state asked the college to open a charter school, the school would accept all students in Berrien County and part of Van Buren County, not just students in the Benton Harbor school district.

In addition to closing the high school, the state would “expand opportunities” for K-8 students and work with the district to “stabilize” its finances. The district has more than $16 million in debt.

In a telephone news conference Friday afternoon, Interim State Superintendent Sheila Alles said the state would enter into a partnership agreement with the district for the K-8 students. The agreement would give the district 18-month and 36-month goals and would bring community partners onboard to help. 

But not everyone from the state is happy with the proposal. Pam Pugh, vice president of the State Board of Education, said Friday night that they voted at a retreat Tuesday to have Alles send a letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer outlining their concerns.

In the letter that was sent to the governor on Thursday, board members said they oppose multiple aspects of the plan, “especially the lack of involvement of the local school board in the development of the plan, the chartering of the high school by Lake Michigan Community College and informing select members of the community and district staff prior to the Benton Harbor School Board.”

Alles wrote in the letter that State Board of Education members approved the following statement at their retreat on Wednesday: “No plan for the future of the Benton Harbor Area Schools be presented to the Benton Harbor School Board before the Benton Harbor School Board has had the opportunity to be a meaningful partner in the development of the plan and that the Interim State Superintendent delivers the statement to the Governor on behalf of the State Board of Education.”

Friday’s news release and additional information about the state’s plan can be found at Michigan.gov/BentonHarborSchools.

The site states that this is the best plan for the high school students that allows students in K-8 to stay close to home.

“If the School Board chooses not to pursue this option, state law dictates that either the entire district will dissolve or be converted into a charter school system,” it states. “These aren’t the options we want. That’s why we’re putting forward a compromise to stabilize their finances and focus on younger students in Benton Harbor.”

The superintendents and educators stated in the release: “As educators, we all share a responsibility to ensure every student can get a quality public education. We stand by ready to serve the Benton Harbor community and help every student thrive and build a future for themselves here in Michigan. We’re ready to work with everyone who wants to help.”

Besides Lake Michigan College, the educators are from Berrien Springs Public Schools, Bridge Academy – powered by Kinexus Group, Bridgman Public Schools, Coloma Community Schools, Eau Claire Public Schools, Lakeshore Public Schools, Niles Community Schools, St. Joseph Public Schools and Watervliet Community Schools.

Later on Friday, they released another joint statement, saying, “Multiple local schools and two other local partners have agreed to assist with whatever plan is ultimately decided upon. Please know that the details to implement this plan are immense and those of us ready to help all have many, many questions and concerns that will need to be discussed and agreed upon before we can clearly detail how this impacts us.”

State officials said in a telephone news conference Friday afternoon that the details of the plan still need to be worked out and approved by the school boards of each of the participating school districts.

State Sen. Kim LaSata, R-Bainbridge Township, issued a statement saying that making sure Benton Harbor area students receive a quality education is the state’s top priority.

“While the district is currently experiencing both financial and academic problems, I am encouraged by everyone who has come to the table in support of the students,” she stated. “The future of these students and the community relies on students’ success.”

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad announced that he is holding a news conference at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at Benton Harbor City Hall, 200 E. Wall St., to give his response to the state’s proposal.

History of state control

The Benton Harbor school district came under state control through a consent agreement in 2014 for its high debt and through a partnership agreement in 2017 for students’ persistently low test scores on standardized tests.

Benton Harbor school board trustees signed a five-year cooperative agreement with the state in June 2018 that replaced the partnership agreement and put a superintendent/CEO in charge of the district, with the trustees taking an advisory position in all matters except taxation and the borrowing of money. In November, the state released the district from the consent agreement, even though it’s still in debt.

In December, state legislators voted to remove the part of the law the cooperative agreement was written under, effective June 30. School board trustees expect to take back local control on July 1, with the superintendent/CEO becoming a traditional superintendent.

Superintendent/CEO Bob Herrera was hired by school board trustees in June 2018 to hold that position for four years. But because of the uncertainty with the district reverting back to local control, he’s started looking for other jobs. He’s one of two finalists for the superintendent position in Farmington Public Schools in the Detroit area. That interview takes place Wednesday.

In a special Superintendent/CEO meeting Friday, Herrera said he doesn’t know anything more than what has been released to the media. The meeting was called so he could approve some school field trips.

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