BENTON HARBOR — Michigan’s new top school official in Lansing weighed in on the future of Benton Harbor High School on Friday, saying the state should not close the school.
“Collectively as a state, we need work to strengthen Benton Harbor’s finances and academics, such that closing the high school is not necessary,” State Superintendent Michael Rice, who started Aug. 1, said in an email. “The high school is the center of a community, particularly in a one high school town.”
Benton Harbor school board President Stephen Mitchell called this great news.
“We want to sit down with the state superintendent and discuss our future with him and anyone else who wants to discuss the future of this district,” he said. “... We have always felt that there needed to be a cooperative agreement between the state and the community on solving our issues.”
In response to Rice’s statement, Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson from the governor’s office, said in an email: “The proposals the state put forward have been focused on keeping the district open and turning around academics.”
Rice’s support comes less than a week after the ACLU of Michigan delivered a six-page letter to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s office outlining its support of district efforts to remain open and free of state control.
The future of the high school has hung in the balance since May 24, when the Whitmer administration proposed closing the school so district officials could focus on improving student achievement in grades K-8 and on reducing the district’s $18.4 million debt. If accepted, state officials said up to $11 million of the district’s debt could possibly be forgiven.
Benton Harbor school board trustees rejected that proposal and a second one that would have closed the high school in 2020 if certain benchmarks weren’t met.
Rice was the superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools for the past 12 years, where he is credited with helping to improve student achievement in reading, writing and math, and increased high school graduation rates, according to his biography on the state’s website.
Under his leadership, the number of students taking advanced placement courses at KPS more than doubled, with the number of African American students taking AP courses increasing 313 percent.
In addition, Rice was president of Michigan’s urban schools association – the Middle Cities Education Association – in 2013-14. The association is a coalition of 28 urban and high-poverty school districts, including Benton Harbor Area Schools and KPS. It works to improve educational opportunities for urban students.
KPS and BHAS both serve high-poverty families, with 71 percent and 83 percent of the students respectively qualifying for free and reduced lunches in the fall of 2018, according to state records.
Rice was chosen by the Michigan Board of Education on May 7 to replace former State Superintendent Brian Whiston, who died last spring. Rice is responsible for leading MDE and for developing relationships with other government departments and with the public.
The state superintendent is independent of the governor’s office. Rice was hired by the eight Michigan Board of Education members, who are elected in statewide elections.
Pamela Pugh, vice president of the state board, said there are several other school districts having the same problems Benton Harbor is having.
“I am very happy that we have Dr. Rice coming on board who has first-hand experience with many of the issues black and brown and low income school districts face,” she said.
Pugh said Benton Harbor High School needs to be fixed, not closed.
“Then that fix can be applied to districts that face similar hardships,” she said.
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