Benton Harbor school officials want four years to improve high schools

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

School officials in Benton Harbor want the state to keep its high schools open for at least four more years while educators attempt to improve student academic performance, according to a new plan released this week by the district's school board.

At the end of four years, if the district fails to make "reasonable progress" toward its academic goals, the state superintendent of public instruction would consider whether the schools "need to be closed and reconstituted."

Benton Harbor School Board president Stephen Mitchell.

"Because the threat of shutting down Benton Harbor High School has resulted in the adverse effect of parents seeking to enroll their school-aged children outside of the district, the proposed agreement must provide that both the board and the state are committed to keeping Benton Harbor High School open for a minimum of four years," the plan says.

"The proposed agreement must provide that if the district meets its annual benchmarks ... then the four-year commitment to keep Benton Harbor High School open will continue to roll over annually, so that students who enroll in BHAS as a freshman know that they will be able to graduate as a Tiger."

In the plan, provided to the Detroit News on Thursday, the Benton Harbor Area schools board of education also agrees to enter into an enhanced deficit elimination plan and financial recovery agreement to address its $18 million debt.

The school board unanimously approved the plan on Tuesday and sent it to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office on Wednesday. Under the plan, the board would continue to have full local control and operate a K-12 district.

"We received a proposal from the Benton Harbor Area School Board Wednesday," Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. "We will review the proposal with the best interest of Benton Harbor students as the priority.”

Board president Steve Mitchell did not respond to a request for comment.

Talks remain ongoing between the Benton Harbor school board and members of Whitmer's staff on how to address a severe financial and academic crisis in the southwest Michigan school district that educates about 1,800 mostly black students.

Whitmer caused an uproar when in May she sent the Benton Harbor school board a proposal to close its high schools in 2020 and send those students to predominantly white districts. 

The Benton Harbor school board has twice rejected plans by Whitmer and her office, including an earlier 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 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, according to the state Attorney General's Office.

In its newest plan, the board offers a debt elimination proposal under which the district and the state provide "equal contributions" that combined would equal $17 million — or $8.5 million each — to resolve both the outstanding long-term bond debt and the current general fund deficit, with each contributing approximately $8,500,000."

"In the nature of a partnership, and given the mixed control over the district affairs between the state and the board over the past years, the district proposes that both the state and BHAS would provide equal contributions," the plan says.

The district says it would make its contribution by seeking voter approval, likely in March, of a bond issue for $8.5 million to issue school financing stability bonds,.

Craig Thiel, director of research with the Citizens Research Council, said this is the first time the board is asking the state to split responsibility for the accumulated debt.

"That’s a fairly significant ask. I don’t know how they settled on 50%, perhaps it's a starting point," Thiel said.

Thiel said the school stability bonds Benton Harbor wants to issue were created out of the 2016 Detroit Public Schools bailout legislation to help the district pay off its debt.

DPS pays off the bonds with revenues it already receives from the state, not from a new voter-approved tax, Thiel said.

"As for the school stability bonds, that’s a legal question for an attorney as to whether the district can seek a millage to pay off these type of bonds," Thiel said.

The plan says the board will hire a "highly qualified" superintendent and chief financial officer for the district and would allow the state to appoint a local auditor, to be paid for with state funds, grants or private donations.

It also said the board will continue to work to increase the number of certified teachers in the district. Some estimates say as many as 40% of teachers are non-certified. 

Many point to the district's high percentage of long-term substitute teachers who are not certified as a contributor to low academic performance. 

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.

In the plan, the board proposes targets or "benchmarks" for state tests such as SAT, taken by 11th graders, which is a test that measures college readiness.

The proposed 12-month target for the SAT is .5% of students proficient, while the four-year target moves that number to 2%. For reading on the state assessment, the benchmark starts at 3% in 12 months and 6% in four years.

"The board recognizes that there are significant academic and financial struggles facing the district, and appreciates the state officials’ support in helping the board turnaround the district," the plan says. "The board desires to continue to collaboratively work with state officials to that end, and offers this proposed plan."

State law states the state superintendent of public instruction and the state treasurer are the two authorities who can dissolve a district. Michigan’s new state superintendent of instruction Michael Rice starts Aug. 1.

Brown said action by state lawmakers would be needed if dissolution is sought because Benton Harbor does not meet all of the criteria outlined in the law to dissolve the district. 

Carlton Lynch, a senior pastor at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Benton Harbor, said he thinks the community should get the chance to weigh in on a plan that potentially impacts it financially.

"Why is the plan being submitted to the governor? It should have been submitted to the community to voice concerns," Lynch said. "If it's going on the ballot, the community should have input."

Mary Brown, a retired Benton Harbor teacher who returned to teach part-time in the district, said on Thursday any kind of plan to improve academics at the school will take time.

"This is a major, major dysfunctional system," she said. "It has gotten worse as we have had students leave and enrollment has dropped."

Mary Brown said the district's acting superintendent Patricia Robinson seems "good" and listens to "reason and welcomes new approaches."

"The board does have to trust in their leadership to support learning in the school and new innovative ideas," she said.