State to Benton Harbor schools: Give us a plan by Friday

Benton Harbor High School students walk past the front of the high school in Benton Harbor on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, in preparation of an annual Peace Walk held at the end of the school year. The school board has released a plan aimed at keeping the district's high school open and avoiding a state-threatened shutdown.

Lansing — State officials say they look forward to receiving "additional information" from Benton Harbor school officials on their plan for the troubled district but a Friday deadline remains in place for school leaders to decide whether to close the high schools or face total dissolution of the district.

Members of the Benton Harbor school board met Wednesday with state officials in Lansing to discuss alternatives to closing the district's high schools, a move Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is seeking to resolve the district's $18.4 million in debt and poor academic outcomes.

Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer, said Wednesday the board presented an outline of a plan to Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, other administration staff, state education and treasury officials.

"The conversation today with school board members was a conversation about how to provide great educational opportunities for children," Brown said. "The governor’s first priority is and always has been ensuring Benton Harbor students can get on track to earn a quality public education that gets them on a path to a good job."

Brown said state officials "look forward to receiving additional information by the Friday deadline for review." Whitmer was not at the meeting.

"In the meantime, discussions are ongoing," Brown said.

The deadline is midnight Friday.

Benton Harbor school officials were not immediately available for comment after the meeting.

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad was not at the meeting but said on Wednesday that he spoke to board members and there would be a second meeting Friday where school officials would provide additional documents to state officials.

"After Friday, everyone will have a better idea of direction and next steps," Muhammad said.

On Tuesday, protesters gathered in Lansing, accusing Whitmer of acting like Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, who installed emergency managers in several predominantly black communities with financial troubles and dissolved a struggling school district in Buena Vista. 

But the governor defended her plan in remarks before a gathering of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus and the NAACP, calling it a “genuine attempt” to help students in a district ravaged by decades of enrollment declines and disinvestment under past administrations.

Under the proposal, Benton Harbor High School and a smaller alternative high school would close. Students would instead attend one of eight local high schools in neighboring communities or get a CTE-focused education and earn college credits in partnership with nearby Lake Michigan College.

The plan would give locals a path to pay off $18.4 million in short- and long-term debts without completely dissolving the district, which would have the ability to “reboot” the high school once that debt is retired, Whitmer said.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, applauded the governor’s plan and said Benton Harbor should not expect a bailout from the state Legislature.

“I give her terrific kudos for taking a very risky position — I think the correct position,” Shirkey said. "And now I think we just need to (give Benton Harbor officials) time to reach the right conclusion. They should not count on special funding from the Legislature.”

Benton Harbor “faces some difficult decisions — I admit that,” Shirkey added. “But they need to own it. And once they own it, they can implement it.”