BENTON HARBOR — Parents need to know now if Benton Harbor High School is going to be open more than one more school year.

That’s what the Rev. Maurice McAfee said Friday after helping Benton Harbor school officials earlier in the day talk to parents at River Terrace Apartments in Benton Harbor. They were trying to convince the parents to enroll their children in Benton Harbor Area Schools for the school year that starts in a little over three weeks.

Only 37 percent of the students in the district attend district schools. The rest attend charter schools or other school districts through schools of choice. Students who leave the district take with them about $8,000 a piece in state funding, which has left the district in a financial crisis.

“One of the things that’s hurting recruitment is parents don’t know if Benton Harbor (High School) is going to be open past June 2020,” said the pastor of New Bethel Baptist Church in Sodus Township.

In May, state officials threw the school district into chaos when they proposed closing the high school next year so school officials can focus on raising student achievement in grades K-8 and on eliminating the district’s $18.4 million debt.

“If we can get some kind of confirmation that the school is going to be open past that, then parents can make an intelligent decision whether they’re going to go with Benton Harbor and give it another chance to get things together or do they need to (find) their kids a spot in the schools of choice,” McAfee said.

He said the cloud over the high school is affecting students in the lower grades as well because parents want to have all of their children in one school district. If the high school only has one more school year left, he said many parents are talking about moving all of their children into a new district.

Benton Harbor school board trustees have rejected two proposals from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office so far, saying they will not accept any plan that contains the possibility that the high school could be closed.

The ball is now in the governor’s court. The trustees sent their latest proposal to Whitmer’s office the week of July 23. At the time, Interim Superintendent Patricia Robinson said she hopes a deal can be worked out before the start of the school year Sept. 3.

That plan calls for the state and school district to enter into a four-year cooperative agreement in which 50 percent of the debt is paid for by the state, with the school district asking voters to approve a millage to pay for the other half of the debt. It also includes academic and behavioral benchmarks each year. The plan also stipulates that the BH school board would be in charge of all operations. 

School board President Stephen Mitchell said Thursday that they haven’t heard back from state officials about the plan. 

McAfee said that’s unacceptable.

“That’s not working together. That’s holding people hostage,” he said. “... It’s important that somebody makes a statement about what’s going to go on to help the recruitment.”

Tiffany Brown, spokesperson for the governor’s office, said in an email that the Michigan Department of Treasury and Michigan Department of Education are “reviewing the financial and academic benchmarks included in the proposal submitted by the Benton Harbor Area School (BHAS) Board. Discussions are ongoing and we look forward to working with the board on a solution that is in the best interest of BHAS students.”

In a separate email, Bill Disessa, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, stated: “Dr. (Michael) Rice and others at the Michigan Department of Education are working with the Michigan Department of Treasury, and providing technical support, for every effort to develop a positive solution for Benton Harbor schools.” 

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