BENTON HARBOR — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is giving Benton Harbor school board trustees another week to come up with a plan to keep the district’s high school open.
“If there is a viable alternative that the school board wants to present in the next week, I’ll obviously take a look at that. But it has to be viable,” Whitmer told media Wednesday after speaking with the public for almost two hours at All Nations Church of God in Christ in Benton Harbor.
The previous deadline was Friday. The plan, rolled out May 24, calls for the suspension of operations at the high school in 2020, with the students dispersed among eight surrounding high schools and a newly created charter school. This would let the district focus on K-8 education.
But the overwhelming sentiment of the more than 200 people at the town hall meeting is that suspending high school operations would be devastating.
Whitmer said the district is in a financial and academic crisis. When Whitmer cited the data saying only 3 percent of third-graders can read and that high school students aren’t being prepared for college, people shouted, “Not true” and “That’s a lie.”
“How do you have a community without a high school?” more than one resident implored.
Whitmer said residents have legitimate fear and mistrust of the state.
“For years, we’ve seen the state not support a community that they put into jeopardy,” she said. “We’re a state that has not been investing in the education of our children. We have an education crisis across Michigan. And this community’s feeling it harder than anywhere else.”
Whitmer said that’s why she worked with the state Department of Education and Department of Treasury to come up with a plan to keep the school district open.
“Other communities that had debt and poor outcomes for kids – the traditional route was to dissolve the school district or move to full charter, and that’s not what I want for Benton Harbor,” she said. “What I want for Benton Harbor is to get back on track.”
State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks said after the town hall that if the school board approves the state plan, lawmakers will decide how much transition assistance the district will receive. Potentially, she said the almost $11 million of debt from emergency loans given by the state could be wiped away. The district’s total debt is around $16 million.
State School Reform Officer William Pearson said suspending operations at the high school will help the district because it can then focus more money on K-8 grade education, which costs half the price of educating high school students.
Whitmer said the high school would be reopened after the district’s debt is paid off and the students are succeeding academically.
She said it wasn’t easy to come up with a plan to handle the district’s debt and boost academic achievement.
“We put a lot of work into this plan, and we think this is a way to preserve the district and give the kids the education they need,” she said. “If there’s another viable alternative, I will take a look at it, for sure. We’ve got to move quickly, though. Not acting is not an option.”
But Benton Harbor residents at the meeting were not buying it. “There’s no way that anybody could think that this plan will help us,” said Apollonia Williams of Benton Harbor.
She said she sent her children to a charter school but because they were treated unfairly, she brought them back to the district.
“Debt can be forgiven,” she said.
Many residents said they don’t want their children to attend the neighboring schools, where they will be in the minority and will feel unwelcome. Benton Harbor High School is more than 90 percent African American.
Residents said they’ve seen the hateful comments on social media about their children.
“They don’t want us,” several residents said.
Lt. Governor Garlin Gilchrist, who is black, said he understands their fears because he has lived it. He said while growing up in Detroit, he was switched from a 99 percent African American school district to one where he was the only black student.
“I had to deal with people touching my hair and rubbing my elbows to understand how being black was,” he said. “I had to deal with adults making assumptions about what I was capable of and then trying to take action to limit my possibilities because of what they thought I could actually do.”
Gilchrist said the state wants to put up “guardrails” so the Benton Harbor students aren’t treated that way.
Elizabeth McCree of Benton Harbor said she graduated in 2001 from Lake Michigan Catholic High School in St. Joseph, where she was the school’s second black homecoming queen.
However, she also experienced heartache. She said she didn’t attend school on the day the KKK marched at the Berrien County Courthouse across the street because school leaders said they couldn’t guarantee her safety. And while participating in sports, McCree said she was called the n-word countless times.
“I was terrorized going to school outside this community,” said McCree, a well-known local attorney. “The sheriff had to put a sticker on my car because I was pulled over so many times driving to St. Joe to go to school that I was missing school.”
Whitmer said after the meeting that such concerns are valid.
“We’re mindful of the need to ensure that we have the right plan, the right training, the right processes, and that we as a state stay engaged to ensure that children really do have a fair and level educational opportunity,” she said. “If this plan goes through and they’ve got these other districts that they attend, that there’s a just path forward.”
In the past, Whitmer said the state has rushed to close districts that are in the shape Benton Harbor is in.
“That’s what I’m trying to avoid,” she said. “I don’t want to dissolve the district of Benton Harbor. I want to make sure that we are successful. ... At the end of every day, I’m going to do what I think is in the best interests of the kids of this state.”
The governor said this plan would give high school students opportunities they don’t have in the Benton Harbor school district.
“That is a good short-term. But the long-term, hopefully, is that Benton Harbor schools turn around, become financially solvent, and that we’re really in a position of rebooting the high school,” she said.
During the meeting, several students said they want Whitmer to give the district a fresh start by wiping away the debt.
Whitmer said she doesn’t have the authority to do that.
“That relies on the Legislature to do that,” she said. “And frankly, the Republican-controlled Legislature doing that is slim to none. ... There are already conversations around the possibility of dissolution. And as I told you, that’s what I’m fighting against.”
What happens if the school board doesn’t come up with a viable alternative and doesn’t accept the state’s plan?
“I think that’s a crisis that we hope we don’t confront, frankly,” she said. “The Legislature is critical in terms of funding. I don’t have a checkbook that I alone control in state government. I have to work with the Legislature. I’m working to infuse $500 million into the school aid fund so that we can make a greater investment in kids education in the state than we’ve seen in 20 years.”
At a town hall meeting Tuesday sponsored by the school board, Vice President Joseph Taylor said the trustees rejected the state’s plan last week in a letter they sent to Whitmer.
Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege