In Benton Harbor, a school crisis with racial overtones

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Poppy Sias-Hernandez, regional director of community affairs for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, talks with local minister Don McAfee at Benton Harbor High School, which the state says must close to salvage the struggling district.

Benton Harbor — The future of 700 high school students and the fate of a southwest Michigan school district hangs in the balance this week as the people of Benton Harbor push back against a state plan to close the city's high schools.

The urban school district, whose 1,800 students are 92 percent black and 81 percent economically disadvantaged, has staggeringly low academic achievement and has been ravaged by years of declining enrollment.

And despite the efforts of a turnaround specialist who was ready to move ahead with educational and financial reforms for the next three years under state watch, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has told the community the only course of action left is to close Benton Harbor High School and a smaller alternative high school.

Whitmer wants to send the students to primarily white, rural and more affluent districts to address the district's $18.3 million debt, give high schoolers access to certified teachers and allow educators to focus on K-8 education.

The prospect of disbanding the high school and sending hundreds of black students to finish their education in overwhelmingly white suburbs has put a decidedly racial tinge on what is unfolding as the first crisis of Whitmer’s governorship.

"I hope our voices mean something," Benton Harbor parent Apollonia Williams told Whitmer. "We have been lied to. We can't trust anyone right now. We have had people come talk to us about what this is going to be, and they turn around and do another thing. ... There is not one parent who wants this high school closed."

Whitmer came to Benton Harbor last week and told residents that dissolving the district is the alternative to closing the high school, given the district's financial and academic crisis.

“My hope is that the district has phenomenal academic outcomes for K-8 and that we reboot the high school in Benton Harbor,” Whitmer said. “We shed the debt, we get the academics on the right path, and we rebuild a high school opportunity.”

Dadrainana McFall, a sophomore at Benton Harbor High School, does not want to leave her school. "I don't have anywhere else to go," she said. "This is my hometown."

The school board, which has so far refused to accept the state's plan, has until Friday to create an alternative solution, agree to close the high schools by the 2020-21 school year or face dissolution of the entire K-12 district.

"This is a bad plan for the community. It gets rid of a high school," said Joseph Taylor, the board's vice president. "High schools are the fabric of anyone’s community, and good high schools create good cities."

Robert Herrera, the state-appointed CEO of Benton Harbor Area Schools who was one year into a four-year contract to turn around the district, said he was shocked to learn the governor wanted to shut down the high schools, a decision he learned in late May. Herrera resigned from the district on Thursday, which is effective June 30.

"I have no idea how that all shifted," Herrera said. "It's me sitting here trying to figure out the same thing. But there are realities in Benton Harbor that you have to deal with."

Those realities include the massive debt, an inability to borrow more in emergency loans from the state because it has exhausted all the emergency loan dollars it can borrow under state law and student test scores that rank among the lowest in the state.

Herrera said the school district has made poor financial decisions for years, such as purchasing property that has lost value and investing in a school building and then closing it.

"It's gotten to the point now where the district can't pay back its deficit. It's called bankruptcy in the real world," Herrera said.

Just 3% of Benton Harbor's third-graders — four of the 127 students tested — read at grade level on the 2018 state evaluation test. The state rate was 44% proficient. Zero of the district's 11th-graders were deemed college ready, according to tests in the last five years.

It has also has lost millions of dollars in revenue every year with 2,782 students attending schools outside district boundaries. School officials say the district lost out on $22 million in the 2016-17 school year as students fled to other districts or charters. The district gets around $8,000 per student from the state in its annual budget.

District enrollment was 5,127 in the 2002-03 school year, dropped to 2,468 in the 2014-15 school year and was 1,941 for the 2018-19 school year.

Poppy Sias-Hernandez, regional director of community affairs for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, talks with local minister Don McAfee at Benton Harbor High School, which the state says must close to salvage the struggling district.

Students have been visibly upset, speaking out at public meetings discussing the possible closure of their high school. Many teens identified themselves as Benton Harbor Tigers and said the school has a history worth protecting.

High school student Dadrainana McFall, a 10th-grader who is captain of the junior varsity softball team, says she does not want to leave her high school for her senior year.

McFall, like dozens of other students in Benton Harbor, wants to graduate as a Tiger and attend college to study architecture. As school leaders rallied last week to save her school, the teen held a small golden statue engraved with the name Benton Harbor.

"I don't have anywhere else to go," McFall said. "I have been in Benton Harbor. I have not been anywhere else other than Benton Harbor. This is my hometown. Benton Harbor created me. I don't want the school to close."

Fingers pointed at state

Understanding how the district fell into hard economic times, why its students perform at the bottom of state testing and why the governor is moving quickly toward school closure has turned into a finger-pointing game.

Board members blame the state, arguing the looming high school closure and the transfer of per pupil dollars to other districts is “explicitly a transfer of wealth from an overwhelmingly poor and black community — Benton Harbor — to nearby white, more affluent communities."

Herrera blames the Michigan Department of Education, saying it would send in inexperienced educational consultants to drive reforms that either were never implemented or never brought change because the people on the ground in Benton Harbor did not have the expertise to carry them out.

The crowd shouts "No justice! No peace!" at the Benton Harbor School Board's special meeting to discuss the state's proposal to close the high school on June 4.

"Someone from Lansing would come down and say you are going to commit to this reform initiative, but they would not stay there and help," said Hererra, who was hired May 2018 to lead the district. "It's easy to identify initiatives. It's hard to bring it about."

Herrera also points to the high turnover of leadership across the district, especially in the high school, which has seen three principals in as many years. The district has also seen multiple superintendents in the last decade.

The district's difficulty attracting talent is something many people agree is a contributing problem. Salary levels for teachers are below the state average, Herrera said, and many leave Benton Harbor to get paid $7,000-$9,000 more a year. The starting salary in the district is $34,000 with an average of $47,000.

Many point to the district's high percentage of long-term substitute teachers who are not certified — 40 percent fall into this category — as a contributor to low academic performance. These teachers can only stay in their positions for one school year before they must be reassigned.

Taylor, who has four children in the district, said he thinks the state is moving in now to make changes in the district before June 30 when the state reform office is shut down and state authorities will no longer have control. The Benton Harbor Board of Education will resume local control of the district on July 1.

"They want to do before we get the power back. This is an emergency manager under the auspices of a cooperative agreement," Taylor said. "They are allowing us to cut our own necks."

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses the community and explains the only course of action left is to close Benton Harbor High School.

2014 consent agreement 

The district came under the eye of the state in 2014, when Gov. Rick Snyder agreed with the findings of a state financial review team that said a financial emergency existed in Benton Harbor.

In September 2014, the state of Michigan and Benton Harbor Area Schools entered into a consent agreement to address the financial emergency. After the district failed to make any progress on its goals in a 2017 partnership agreement with the state, Michigan education officials threatened to close the high schools.

Herrera said MDE again threatened to close the high schools last year unless the board agreed to enter the cooperative agreement, under which the state education department would provide leadership, academic and financial stability to the district. The board agreed, gave up its power and Herrera was hired.

In November, then-State Treasurer Nick Khouri announced the district was released from its consent agreement "so greater emphasis could be placed on helping students and improving academics" through an agreement with MDE.

Herrera said the finances were improving and students were showing midyear academic gains.

"My only goal for this year was to make sure we could survive financially next year. The real return was year three of the plan," he said.

Former Benton Harbor High School principal Rodger Tripplett leads the crowd in the school's fight song at last week's school board meeting.

Taylor said the district has been working on its plan for the 2019-20 school year and meeting with MDE officials to prepare the district for July 1 when the school board resumes full local control.

"We were working on a plan with MDE for the last several months and with Treasury. To our surprise, they sprung this on us," Taylor said.

State officials say the district's financial position is among two main drivers to close the high schools with $700 of the $8,000 per student payment going toward loan repayment instead of learning.

Treasury Department spokesman Ron Leix said the district's short- and long-term debt is $18.4 million dollars and is expected to rise to $21.5 million at the end of fiscal 2020.

“The state Treasury Department has no emergency loan dollars available to lend,” Leix said of Benton Harbor.

Benton Harbor's enrollment has been declining at a rate of 5% to 10% per year, which has a direct impact on district revenues.

Treasury officials said if the high schools close, the district would be eligible for between $10 million and $11 million in transitional funds. Others have called it debt relief.

On Wednesday, Whitmer came to Benton Harbor to speak directly to residents who vehemently oppose the plan that would have students attend one of eight local high schools in their area or get a CTE-focused education and earn college credits in partnership with nearby Lake Michigan College.

Asked why a decision to close the school was made as the district was working with MDE on a three-year plan, Whitmer, who has been in office since January, said her staff and treasury have been working with the district for a long time and that decisions are being made based on "facts, science and the needs of the children."

The state — specifically treasury and state superintendent of public instruction — has a history of either dissolving school districts in financial trouble or placing them under state control.

In 2013, the state dissolved the Buena Vista School District and Inkster Public Schools.

Several districts have been placed into the hands of emergency managers, including Detroit Public Schools and the districts of Muskegon Heights and Highland Park. Both Muskegon Heights and Highland Park now operate as charter districts only.

Craig Thiel, director of the Citizens Research Council of Michigan, said Benton Harbor is a unique case because it's the only Michigan school district under a consent agreement. That agreement goes away June 30 when the state reform office closes.

“All of the models dealing with finances of districts don’t involve additional state dollars. They assume it’s management issues and they assume you can resolve it," Thiel said. "With Benton Harbor, it only got worse. Kids left the district. And now this window of opportunity presents itself to do something.”

What the school district needs is reinvestment not disinvestment, Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said. Taking away the high schools would increase unemployment, cause a spike in crime and impact the social environment for young people, he said.

Muhammad said he believes a motive behind the proposed closure is to allow developers to get access to the high school, which sits on prime property near the St. Joseph River. As mayor, Muhammad says he has seen development plans with no high school building on the site.

"Follow the money and money talks," he said. "They say it's about finances. But what's not said in the undercurrent is there is elaborate plans to turn Benton Harbor into a tourist attraction for second homes and retirement and recreation. Basically, a new population and push out those who have stayed in the city.

“It’s a total front to the community. It’s not just a slap in the face, but to take away the high school would be like taking down our twin towers.”

Muhammad, who has organized a rally in Lansing on Tuesday to protest the state's plan,

said he wonders what will happen if the community totally opposes the proposal.

“Does the governor ran ramshod and do it anyway despite what the community is saying or do they come back to the table?" he said. 

“Benton Harbor is at a crossroad. Governor Whitmer is at a crossroad. How she handles Benton Harbor will determine her legacy."

Looking ahead

Dissolving the district would require approval from the Legislature. State officials say legislators might feel they have no other option given the academic and financial distress of the district.

The list of local districts that Benton Harbor students could attend includes Berrien Springs Public Schools, Bridgman Public Schools, Coloma Community Schools, Eau Claire Public Schools, Lakeshore School District, Niles Community Schools, St. Joseph Community Schools and Watervliet School District and Bridge Academy.

At Lake Michigan College, the plan calls for the creation of the LMC’s public academy, which would not be operated by a private management company but would be overseen by a public board appointed by the LMC governing body, state officials said.

While St. Joseph borders Benton Harbor, some of the districts are as far as 30 miles away. Those districts are typically 70 percent white and are 10 percent or less black, except for Eau Claire Public Schools which is 37% Hispanic, 32% white and 26% black.

Benton High sophomore Le’Coreon Travier addressed the governor last week, saying: “Governor, you can't shut us down. How can you have a community without a high school?"

The distance is a concern for many, considering 48% of the population in Benton Harbor is in poverty and the median household income is $20,157, according to the 2017 U.S. Census.

And some parents have expressed racial concerns about black students and white students mixing in districts that are far away and new to the students. Others voiced fears about black students being "used" for Count Day, when districts tally students for state aid.

Williams, a graduate of the high school, has four children in the district and told the governor she does not want her children or anyone else’s in the other districts.

Williams said she already sent her children to other districts outside Benton Harbor and pulled them back out after her children were exposed to racist behaviors.

“I feel like they are not wanted there. I feel it would cause way more problem and who knows if they are going to allow them to go to the same district?” Williams said of her own children. “If we wanted our children out there, we would have sent them.”

Superintendents from the districts provided a joint statement to state education officials saying as educators, they share a responsibility to ensure every student can get a quality public education.

"We stand by ready to serve the Benton Harbor community and help every student thrive and build a future for themselves here in Michigan. We’re ready to work with everyone who wants to help,” the statement said.

St. Joseph Community Schools superintendent Ann Cardon and school board president Barry Conybeare did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

Students outside St. Joseph High school last week said some students and staff are talking about what could happen in Benton Harbor and the fact the many districts are expected to absorb students. The school has about 1,000 students.

High school student Emma Goos said she thinks students from Benton Harbor would be welcome at her school but wonders whether they would be upset over the move.

"All of us would just adjust here. I think there would be angry students, angry for having to leave their school," the 17-year-old said.

The state plans to provide transportation from Benton Harbor to the other districts. State officials did not provide an estimate for the cost of such transportation.

Benton Harbor's enrollment has been declining at a rate of 5% to 10% per year.

Herrera, who starts his new post as superintendent of Farmington Schools on July 1, said the transition plan, including closing the high schools, should take place over the summer — otherwise students, parents and teachers might spend the next school year looking for new schools and leaving the district worse off than it already is.

"If this transition doesn’t occur for a full year, what type of learning environment will exist during that year?" Herrera said.

"You have to consider that any current teacher will look for employment elsewhere. Parents will move kids sooner rather than wait. Things are going to get much worse next year. What does anybody have to lose?"

Benton Harbor High school principal Lanada Avinger said students are asking questions about the potential closure, and she is trying to keep them informed with what information she has. The school has about 600 students. An alternative high school in Benton Harbor has about 100 students. Under the plan, both would close.

Avinger, who has spent about 18 months in the district, said she is disappointed by the state's push to close her high school. A majority of students have been in the district since kindergarten, she said.

"This is not a bad school. It's a school that needs an opportunity," said Avinger, who worked in Chicago Public Schools. "In Chicago, I've seen similar things. Students and the staff need clear goals and expectations as to how performance can be achieved."

Students need more mentoring support, exposure to positive experiences and an opportunity to engage in more career or technical programs, she said.

A majority of parents, students and community members who have spoken out publicly oppose the plan.

Asked about the closure of her daughters' high school, parent Penny White sighs and shakes her head.

"This is the only high school we have in Benton Harbor," White said as she waited to pick up her daughters, a freshman and a senior, after school last week.

Then White's thoughts shifted. She considered what other options her younger daughter might have if she attended a neighboring school district outside Benton Harbor.

"If it's a chance to have a better education, than yes," White said. "That's what is No. 1. If they can offer more, it's about having a future in life."