BENTON HARBOR — Support for Benton Harbor Area Schools has been coming in from across the state.
On Monday state Rep. Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo, called for Benton Harbor school board trustees to be given 90 days to come up with a plan that takes into account issues raised by the state and community.
The administration of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has given trustees until Friday to accept a state plan calling for Benton Harbor High School to be closed in 2020, with the students dispersed to eight area high schools and a newly created charter school. If the trustees do not accept the proposal, which was announced May 24, state officials said the entire district could be closed or chartered.
Hoadley, who is running for Congress next year in U.S. Rep. Fred Upton’s district, said there needs to be a third option.
“The proposed options were created by past educational policies that fostered neglect and eliminated opportunities for school districts to thrive,” he wrote. “However, the choices of the past don’t need to dictate the choices of the present or our future. Let’s take a moment to reset the conversation, to pause, and to build a different path forward.”
Hoadley said it doesn’t make sense that the state put the district under state control in 2014 to “restore financial stability to Benton Harbor Area Schools as quickly and efficiently as possible.” But now, he said the state “is saying their own results aren’t good enough as justification for the closure.”
Members of the Berrien County Democratic Party are also calling for the school district to be given more time “pending a thorough assessment of options for addressing the challenges BHAS faces in partnership with the elected school board, the teachers, the parents and the students themselves.”
In a resolution passed Monday, they said a community’s education should be controlled by the locally elected school board.
Party members are hosting a Call to Action from 6-8 p.m. today, in which volunteers will write postcards to state legislators and members of the Michigan Board of Education in support of the district. The event will be at the Benton Harbor Arts and Culture Center, 275 Pipestone St., Benton Harbor.
Steven Spreitzer, president and CEO of the Michigan Roundtable for Diversity and Inclusion in Detroit, sent an open letter May 31 to Gov. Whitmer, saying that Benton Harbor residents shouldn’t be punished for “years of disinvestment and long-term strategies used to segregate the black community from their white counterparts.”
“Taking away the citizens’ right to govern their schools and sending their students into the very communities that have excluded them is not a just or racially equitable solution,” he wrote.
He said any plans about the school district should be driven by Benton Harbor residents and the locally elected school board.
Spreitzer said he supports the Fresh Start petition that calls for the state to forgive the Benton Harbor district’s $16 million debt. More than 7,700 people have signed the petition since Elnora Gavin of Benton Harbor posted it more than two months ago at www.bhwallst.com.
The petition calls for an online financial accounting dashboard, so the public can track every dollar.
“Once the debt is forgiven, under our new state level administration that values public education and equity, our district will be able to bring back important student centered programs designed to help students thrive,” the petition states.
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said he will host a press conference/demonstration at 11 a.m. June 11 in Lansing to support the high school staying open. The event will be at the George Romney Building, 111 S. Capitol, Lansing.
State Rep. Pauline Wendzel, R-Watervliet, said she’s glad to see that the governor is coming to town. “My number one concern is that the students of Benton Harbor receive the best education possible,” she said in a prepared statement. “I’m encouraged the governor is coming to hear directly from the residents of our community.”
The state’s largest teachers union backs Whitmer’s plan. On May 24 the president of the Michigan Education Association, Paula Herbart, released a statement, saying that while the state’s proposal isn’t ideal, “It’s the best solution for students and families – far better than closing down Benton Harbor’s schools and leaving that community, its students and its school employees without options.”
Upton spokesman Josh Paciorek emailed this response to The Herald-Palladium regarding the Republican congressman’s view of the issue: “Rep. Upton is fully aware and has been engaged on the ongoing dynamics within the school district. He cares about the community and has met several times with local leaders and visited the high school recently. However, Fred does not have jurisdiction over this decision as it is made at the state level by the governor’s administration.”
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege