Whitmer says 'doing nothing' is not an option in Benton Harbor

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses residents of Benton Harbor at a special community meeting on June 5  to discuss the state's proposal to close the high school.

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said "doing nothing" is not an option when it comes to addressing financial and academic challenges in Benton Harbor schools and is asking the school board to focus on finding a solution.

In a letter to the school board dated Tuesday, Whitmer said she is reviewing documents the board provided her staff last week, and she will be contacting board members by the end of this week to schedule another meeting.

On Friday, the Benton Harbor school board formally rejected Whitmer's plan to close the district's two high schools as a way to address part of its $18 million debt and low academic achievement.

Acknowledging the board's "no" vote on her plan, Whitmer said in the letter she still thinks the state's plan has merit and if implemented would improve educational outcomes for the children of Benton Harbor.

More: In Benton Harbor, a school crisis with racial overtones

"That said, I think we all know doing nothing is not an option for the children of Benton Harbor," Whitmer wrote in the letter.

Whitmer acknowledged the board's "substantial efforts to begin crafting" a plan of its own and says she looks forward to working in partnership to create a solution that includes benchmarks and accountability measures and more serious measures if benchmarks are not met.

School board vice president Joseph Taylor said Tuesday he had no formal comment on the letter and was "still working through it."

Whitmer’s administration had proposed closing the high school to avoid complete dissolution of the predominately African-American district, arguing a smaller K-8 system would make it easier for officials to pay off $18.4 million in debt.

The Whitmer administration wanted a response by midnight last Friday, and the school board met then for the sole purpose of adopting a "respectful" statement formally opposing the plan, school officials said.

The board is pitching an alternative turnaround plan and has submitted to the state what the administration has called an “outline.” Neither the administration nor school board has disclosed its contents.

The high school closure plan has sparked fierce opposition in a city that has struggled amid decades of white flight, racial strife and a shrinking student population. 

Under the administration’s proposal, Benton Harbor students would have been sent to one of eight high schools in neighboring communities or given the option to join a career technical training program in partnership with nearby Lake Michigan College.

Speaking with reporters Tuesday outside a public education rally at the Michigan Capitol, Whitmer defended her original Benton Harbor proposal as a “thoughtful” plan for students in a district that has “suffered from inequitable funding for a long time” under previous administrations.

“I heard the community,” Whitmer said. “We had a lot of back and forth, and I think we’re going to work together to resolve this. I can’t say what the final pieces are because it’s going to be a joint effort.”

Whitmer declined to make any promises about the high school but noted that beyond debts, abysmal student reading scores “are a huge problem” in the Benton Harbor district.

“We’re not doing right by the kids of Michigan, and communities like Benton Harbor are feeling it the worst,” she said. “And that’s why we’ve got to take it very seriously and work with them to have a good solution.”

State Sen. Kim LaSata, a Bainbridge Township Republican whose district includes Benton Harbor, said she thinks local funding challenges have been exacerbated by parents already choosing to send their kids to other districts.

“I supported the governor’s proposal,” LaSata said. “She’s the first governor to stand up and actually want to take this on.”

LaSata recently introduced legislation that would allow Benton Harbor students to remain eligible for a local “promise zone” scholarship program even if they are sent to high school in a neighboring community.

But LaSata said would not support sending additional state dollars to the debt-ridden district if it was only used to preserve the “status quo.”

“I mean there has to be some real changes made — some positive changes,” she said.

The Michigan Education Association represents teachers in Benton Harbor, and union President Paula Herbart said Tuesday she is hopeful that Whitmer and local officials will work together to address struggles in a district that has been “starved for over 25 years.”

Herbart said the 2020 education budget proposed by Whitmer — but scaled back by the Republican-led House and Senate — would provide the kind of funding boost districts like Benton Harbor could have used in the past.

“The governor brought up the conversation, and it needs to be talked about, but Benton Harbor needs its schools,” she said. “So we have to work together to find a way to solve that problem. Because students need their schools, and they need to be fully funded.”

State Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said she is glad to see that Whitmer’s focus is on local input.

"The families of Benton Harbor deserve the peace of mind knowing that their children will receive a quality education and that their local government and governor supports them in their efforts to improve student outcomes," Gay-Dagnogo said. "I look forward to seeing a robust and collaborative plan for Benton Harbor that uplifts their students and school district alike.”