Can David beat Goliath?

Benton Harbor High School students gather in front of Benton Harbor High School during a peace walk and rally in June to save the school.

BENTON HARBOR — It’s becoming a modern-day David and Goliath story. How can Benton Harbor, a small city of 10,000 people, defy the state government, which seems intent on closing Benton Harbor High School?

“It’s inconceivable,” as Vizzini said repeatedly in “The Princess Bride.”

And yet since May 24, when state officials first proposed closing the city’s only high school and an alternative high school, the school board has rejected not only that plan, but a second one that would have required trustees to agree to close the high school in 2020 if certain benchmarks weren’t met. State officials were saying that with the high school closed, the district could focus on helping students in grades K-8 improve their standardized test scores and on reducing the district’s $18.4 million debt.

Other school districts have fallen under pressure from Michigan’s Goliath, like Inkster and Buena Vista in 2013. What is making the Benton Harbor school district’s situation different, at least so far?

One reason is timing, said Tom Pedroni, an associate professor at Wayne State University, who specializes in researching urban school districts where the students are mostly poor and of color.

He said that in the six years since Inkster and Buena Vista were closed, groups throughout the state have started talking to each other about why poor school districts with mostly African-American students have been closed down by the state.

“There was local outcry in Inkster, but ... there wasn’t a lot of attention to Inkster from outside Inkster,” he said. “People sort of watched it happen and raised some eyebrows, but in terms of advocacy to keep the district open, it didn’t go much farther than Inkster.”

He said organizations like the NAACP and Journey for Justice Alliance started taking a more assertive stance against the market model of education reform. And while Detroit is so big it gets lots of attention, he said they realized that the smaller school districts that served mostly African-American students were also important.

“Michigan has islands of predominantly black populations,” he said. “... We calculated that they were the ones most susceptible to strong state intervention for a variety of reasons.”

Pedroni said they started building relationships throughout the state so they could mobilize quickly when the next predominantly black school district was in jeopardy.

Around that time, he said research revealed that 50 percent of all African Americans in the state were under some form of emergency management. 

“All of those things led to a dynamic where, especially African-American communities were saying, ‘We’ve got to stop looking at this as just our individual struggle,’” he said. “Especially when you have Inkster, which is tiny.”

The Marletta Seats factor

Another reason, Pedroni said, is Marletta Seats, who was Benton Harbor’s school board president until Jan. 1. 

He said Seats started reaching out to a variety of people throughout the state in February because she knew the school district needed help to stand up to the state. 

Pedroni said Seats became alarmed when the district’s then-CEO/superintendent, Bob Herrera, started talking about turning the school district into a charter school district.

“We had a wide array of people on the phone within a very short amount of time that were adamant that we weren’t going to let this happen,” he said.

People from all over the state started attending Michigan Board of Education meetings in Lansing to advocate for the Benton Harbor district.

“We’d already been paying attention for quite a while by late May,” he said.

Add to that a unified school board, where the trustees have made it clear they will not consider any proposal that even hints at possibly closing the high school.

“I continue to be amazed by their tenacity,” Pedroni said.

Seats and board President Stephen Mitchell were unavailable for comment. 

New governor

A third reason, Pedroni cites, is the fact that Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had just taken charge.

In the 12-page proposal her campaign released on how she would improve education, Whitmer said she would end ineffective over-testing and recognize that students who come from poverty have more needs, so schools should receive more money for those students to meet those needs.

Pedroni said many people were surprised that shortly after taking office, Whitmer seemed to be taking the same approach to “school reform” as her predecessor, former Gov. Rick Snyder, had taken.

Some suspect Whitmer was seeking a backroom deal with state legislators who have reasons for wanting to shut down the high school. They say that state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, a Republican from Clarklake, coming out in support of Whitmer’s plan proves this point.

“The alternative is dissolution.” Shirkey said in a statement his office released early in June. “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.”

When Whitmer held a town hall meeting in Benton Harbor on June 5, she said her staff worked hard on the May 24 plan to “suspend” operations at the high school, which she called a compromise so the state legislators didn’t close the entire district. Whitmer said the high school could be reopened once student achievement in grades K-8 improved and the district was no longer in debt.

State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks, who traveled to Benton Harbor with Whitmer, said up to $11 million of the district’s $18.4 million debt might be eliminated, depending on how much transition assistance state legislators decided the district needs.

But Benton Harbor supporters have been steadfast at several town hall meetings in their opposition to closing the high school, even temporarily. They have said that once closed, they don’t believe it would ever reopen. Plus, they have said they believe their children will encounter racism and be bullied at the surrounding, mostly white high schools they would be sent to.

Mayor steps forward 

Along with Seats, another key leader who started reaching out to state and national contacts was Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad. 

Muhammad said he’s used to fighting for justice, having served alongside Jesse Jackson in 2011 against Public Act 4, which strengthened the state’s emergency manager law and was eventually repealed by voters in 2012, although state legislators quickly replaced it with Public Act 436.

“He told me that Benton Harbor was ground zero and was the new Selma of the 21st century,” Muhammad said. In 1965, Alabama state troopers used whips, nightsticks and tear gas at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., to keep peaceful protestors from marching to nearby Montgomery, drawing national attention to the Civil Rights Movement.

Muhammad said state officials have been threatening the school district for years. For example, he said state officials bullied the teachers in 2011 into accepting a 10 percent pay cut or they would send in an emergency manager.

Muhammad has been a vocal critic of the state plans. “I and those who supported me knew we were taking on a big giant, which I’m no stranger to.”

Just like David knew he couldn’t beat Goliath using traditional strategies, Muhammad said supporters knew that drastic measures were needed to save the high school.

The mayor said the stone that hit Goliath in the head and knocked him down represents the school district’s supporters hurling the truth at the state, which includes not just the governor, but the Republican-controlled state Legislature. 

“They are strangling Gov. Whitmer’s proposals and playing hardball to try to get her to bend and bow to their agenda,” he said.

In the Biblical story, David used Goliath’s sword to chop the giant’s head off after he fell to the ground.

Muhammad said Benton Harbor’s story isn’t to that point, yet.

“(The giant) is on his way down,” he said.

A different Bible story

Not everyone agrees this is a David and Goliath story.

The Benton Harbor school district’s situation is more like Jonah and the whale, said Don Weatherspoon, former state-appointed consent agreement consultant to the school district from February 2016 until he retired in October 2017. 

“To me, they’ve been eaten up by their debt, which is managed by the state,” said Weatherspoon, who started working with financially and academically distressed school districts for the state in 1987. 

Weatherspoon said the district is going to be stuck in the state’s belly until the debt is paid off, which may take 20 years, or more.

“Can Jonah sit inside the whale for 20 years?” he said.

Weatherspoon said there’s a good chance that the district’s financial situation is going to get worse before it gets better. Every time a student spurns Benton Harbor for a charter school or a nearby district, another $8,000 leaves with that student. Only 36 percent of students living within the district attend a district school, with an average of 5 to 10 percent more students leaving the district every year.

Plus, according to Weatherspoon the district still owes the city of Benton Harbor about $660,000 in excess property taxes and the state another $1 million – including $800,000 to the state School Aid Fund for money it received but has to give back due to loss of enrollment, and $200,000 for a grant that was underspent in 2015. 

Negotiations continue

Trustees said Tuesday that Whitmer wants to enter into mediation with the school board to come up with a solution that is best for the students. They approved a 12-page plan, which they want to use as a starting point for negotiations. The proposal is posted on the district’s website at www.bhas.org.

Weatherspoon said one way the governor can enter into mediation with the school district is if she invokes PA 436, commonly known as the emergency manager law. Under that law, if a school district is declared to be in a financial emergency, the school board can choose from four options – emergency manager, consent agreement consultant, mediation or dissolution.

Trustees are familiar with this law, because it was invoked in 2014 by Snyder. The district was under consecutive consent agreement consultants from 2014 until November of last year, when then-state Treasurer Nick Khouri announced that the Benton Harbor had been released from the agreement, even though it remained in debt.

At the time, the district was in the first year of what officials thought would be a five-year cooperative agreement. That agreement, approved by trustees in June 2018, put a CEO in charge of the district, with the trustees taking an advisory role. It was signed by Seats, board president at the time, and the state’s then-school reform officer (SRO), Dedrick Martin.

Some people speculated that the district’s financial situation would be handled by the cooperative agreement, so the consent agreement was no longer needed. No one knew that in late December state legislators would approve getting rid of the SRO effective June 30, throwing the district into this current chaos.

Is the governor considering invoking PA 436?

No, according to an email from Tiffany Brown, Whitmer’s spokesperson.

“That is not being considering at this time, as our focus is on working with the board on a solution that is in the best interest of BHAS students,” Brown wrote.

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