BENTON HARBOR — The fate of Benton Harbor High School hangs in the balance as school board trustees give state officials additional information on how they plan to reduce the debt and improve academic performance.
Board President Stephen Mitchell said three trustees traveled Wednesday morning to Lansing, where they presented state officials with what they’re calling a third option. At that meeting, he said state officials asked for more information, which was sent to them later in the afternoon.
“I feel positive,” he said when contacted Wednesday afternoon. “There was no indication today that they wouldn’t take it under consideration.”
The state presented the trustees with two options on May 24 – agree to temporarily close the high school and Dream Academy, the alternative high school, or the entire school district could be dissolved.
Mitchell said a special school board meeting is scheduled for noon Friday at the Central Administration Building, 1995 Union St., where he hopes an announcement can be made.
Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, said in a news release that the trustees spoke with state officials about “how to provide great educational opportunities for children.”
“The governor’s first priority is and always has been ensuring Benton Harbor students can get on track to earn a quality public education that gets them on a path to a good job,” she said. “At today’s meeting, the board presented an outline of a plan and we look forward to receiving additional information by the Friday deadline for review. In the meantime, discussions are ongoing.”
She said the trustees met with Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist and other administration staff, along with the state Department of Education and Department of Treasury.
When Whitmer was in Benton Harbor last week, she said that under the state’s plan, operations at the high school would be suspended so the district could focus on grades K-8. Once the debt was eliminated and academic performance had improved, she said the high school could reopen. Whitmer said state legislators want to close the entire district and this is a compromise her staff worked hard on. Under the plan, students would attend eight surrounding high schools or a newly created charter school.
But residents at multiple town hall meetings have made it clear that closing the high school, even temporarily, is highly unpopular.
More than 90 percent of the high school’s students are black, while the surrounding high schools are mostly white. Parents have said that they fear their children will face racism and bullying if they are sent to surrounding schools.
If school board trustees agree to suspend operations at the high school, state officials said up to $11 million of the district’s $18.4 million debt could be wiped away, depending on how much transition money state legislators believed the district needed. This is not mentioned in the May 24 plan.
State officials point to declining enrollment as a major reason the school district is in financial trouble.
State data shows that 5,411 students live within the school district’s boundaries, with 3,489 (64 percent) of them attending school elsewhere. Of those students, 56 percent are attending another local school district through schools of choice and 42 percent attend a charter school. Another 2 percent are served by Berrien RESA.
Of the 1,922 students attending Benton Harbor schools, 1,217 are in K-8, with 705 at the high school or at Dream Academy.
Trustees said at a town hall meeting last week that the students attending school elsewhere take about $22 million out of the school district.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege