BENTON HARBOR — As the fight heats up to keep Benton Harbor High School open, state officials said Tuesday that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer will meet with Benton Harbor residents today at a town hall event to discuss the state’s plan for the district.

The meeting will be at 4 p.m. at The Brotherhood of All Nations Church of God in Christ in Benton Harbor. That announcement came during an almost four-hour town hall meeting at the high school sponsored by the Benton Harbor school board.

Whitmer is expected to attend with Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist. The doors of the church at 516 Emery St. will open at 3:30 p.m. Handouts with details of the state plan will be available for review. The proposal can also be viewed at Michigan.gov/bentonharborschools.

Under the plan, announced May 24, Berrien RESA would coordinate a schools of choice program allowing Benton Harbor high school students to enroll in any of eight surrounding school districts or a new charter school, beginning with the 2020-21 school year. A K-8 district would remain. The board was given until Friday to accept the plan or risk having the entire district dissolved.

But the crowd of about 400 at the Performing Arts Center on Tuesday weren’t interested in discussing the plan.

Board President Stephen Mitchell said no one cares about the students more than the school board trustees.

Said Mitchell: “I feel like we’ve been backed into a corner by the state because they’re requiring us to decide by this Friday.” 

He said the board is asking state officials to extend the deadline by two weeks “before they completely change this district for the worse.”

Board Secretary Patricia Rush talked about the effect that ongoing loss of enrollment has had on the community. Because most state education funds are based on student count, each student who leaves the district to attend a charter school or through schools of choice takes $8,000 with them. In addition, she said that for every 25 students that leave, a job is lost.

In the 2016-17 school year alone, 2,782 students in the BHAS district attended school elsewhere, meaning a loss of $22 million to BHAS and a loss of 406 jobs in the community. 

Rush said the board has been working diligently to prepare to take over local control on July 1, including submitting a strategic plan twice. However, Rush said state officials have not responded to the plan.

Last summer, the board approved turning over most of the control of the district to a superintendent/CEO by signing a five-year cooperative agreement with the state. Trustees at the time approved Bob Herrera as the superintendent/CEO for the first four years. But in December, state legislators approved removing the law the cooperative agreement was written under on June 30.

Meanwhile, Herrera has been in contract negotiations with Farmington Public Schools Board of Education and is expected to take over as that district’s superintendent later this summer.

At Tuesday’s town hall meeting, one student said the high school is in this situation because it has been identified as a “priority school” by the state, because it was in the bottom 5 percent academically. Yet, he said, more than 100 other public schools were shut down across Michigan before Benton Harbor schools were named as being in the bottom 5 percent.

“There will always be a bottom 5 percent,” he said. “Who’s next?”

Senior Quincy Sulton said board members have done everything the state requested, including laying off staff and turning over most of the control to a CEO – but state officials are still not happy.

Members of the high school’s Peace4Life Youth Ambassadors Club said that every time state officials publicly threaten to shut down the district, it creates more problems for the staff and students. 

“Work with us, not against us, and we will all succeed,” one member said.

What are the solutions?

One Peace4Life member said the debt for all priority schools should be eliminated. That way, the schools can be rebuilt and the students can move forward.

After presentations by the board trustees and students, a number of residents took the mic to express their views, with the words “heart of the community” and “Tiger pride” being an ongoing theme.

“Instead of giving up, encourage us,” one speaker said.

At the end of the meeting, board Vice President Joseph Taylor said the board doesn’t need to take a vote about the state’s plan because they’ve already agreed not to approve the plan in a letter sent to the governor last week.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege