Benton Harbor school officials to send new 4-year plan to governor

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

School officials in Benton Harbor on Tuesday approved a new four-year plan, which they expect to present to the Governor's Office this week for consideration.

Details on the proposal were not immediately available, but members of the Benton Harbor Area Schools board of education voted on the plan at a special meeting Tuesday night, according to Joseph Taylor, vice president of the school board.

Interim superintendent Patricia Robinson addresses parents, community members, and district staff as board members look on during a Parent and Community Forum for Benton Harbor Area Schools on July 18. People could ask questions, enroll their child for school, and get updates.

The four-year plan includes the district and its students meeting guidelines and benchmarks at 24 months and 48 months, Taylor said. Taylor would not provide a copy of the plan.

The Benton Harbor school board has twice rejected plans by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and her office, including a more recent plan that would have increased teacher compensation and installed measures to boost student proficiency. Whitmer has traveled to the city twice in five weeks to meet with school board members.

Whitmer caused an uproar in May when she sent the Benton Harbor school board a proposal to close its high schools in 2020 and send those students to predominantly white districts. In June, her representatives were booed at a school board meeting at Benton Harbor high school when several hundred members of the community rejected Whitmer's plan.

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

Taylor said the district continues to have a cooperative agreement in place with the Michigan Department of Education through 2023, and that no one can come in and break the agreement and close schools.

Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown on Tuesday said that agreement, which was authorized by the state's School Reform Office, no longer exists. The state eliminated the office as of July 1.

"The district is no longer under an agreement authorized by a law that no longer exists," Brown said.

The district serves about 1,800 mostly black students and has $18.4 million in debt.

The Michigan attorney general has said Whitmer has no legal authority to close Benton Harbor's high schools, but she could deploy a financial review team whose work might result in an emergency manager overseeing the troubled district.