Whitmer tells Benton Harbor that high school must close to save district

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses residents of Benton Harbor at a local church during a special community meeting on Wednesday over the future of the city's high school.

Correction: This story has been updated to accurately spell of the last name of Benton Harbor High School sophomore Le’Coreon Travier.

Benton Harbor — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told residents of Benton Harbor that her plan to close the city's high school is in lieu of dissolving the deep-in-debt district.

Whitmer came to Benton Harbor on Wednesday to meet with and speak to 250 people at a local church after 450 people appeared at Benton Harbor High School the day before to protest a state plan send high school students to eight school districts in southwest Michigan.

“I worked with local community members to fashion a solution so you can keep your district,” Whitmer told people packed inside Brotherhood of All Nations Church of God in Christ Wednesday afternoon.

“In other communities, the traditional route has been to dissolve the district or move to charters. That is not what I want for Benton Harbor. What I want is to get it back on track,” she said.

Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist, state Treasurer Rachael Eubanks and state school reform officer Bill Pearson sat for more than two hours and listened to the concerns of students, teachers and community members over her proposal that calls for the closure of the high school in exchange for providing “transitional funding” for the district, which is $18.3 million in debt.

"I am losing sleep over the Benton Harbor children," the governor said.

Le'Coreon Travier, a sophomore at Benton Harbor High School, speaks to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the community during the special community meeting Wednesday.

The state cited the following statistics — which local leaders challenge — in its decision to propose closing the high school: in 2018, only 3% of third-grade students were reading at grade level and zero 11th graders were deemed "college-ready" each of the last five years.

The state had set a Friday deadline for the school board to accept the plan which was announced May 24, but Whitmer announced Wednesday she is giving the Benton Harbor School Board one additional week to meet and come up with an alternative plan.

School board members in Benton Harbor are refusing to accept the plan and are demanding the state come back to the table to work out an agreement to keep the district whole and its 1,800 students in their own schools.

School officials invited Whitmer to a public meeting Tuesday night. She did not attend but sent a representative.

At least 100 people stood to speak to the governor on Wednesday, asking her to find a way to save the high school and the district. Many parents expressed concerns about their children being kicked out of the other eight districts, which are primarily white. Benton Harbor schools are predominantly African American.

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

The state's plan calls for the southwest Michigan school district to enter into an agreement with eight nearby school districts and one college to provide educational services for high school students starting in the 2020-21 school year.

Citing the district’s poor finances and weak academic performance, the governor's office said it wants the board to close the high school as part of a broader plan to improve local education. Enrollment has been declining in the district at a rate between 5% to 10% except for 2017 when it absorbed students from a closed charter school.

Treasury spokesman Ron Leix said the financial crisis that continues to plague the school district has existed for many years, long before the current administration and current version of the local school board were in place. With $18.3 million in debt, the district spends $700 per student to pay back debt each year, Leix said.

“Because of these challenges, it will take bold solutions to remedy the years of financial deficits and academic decline,” Leix said. “The state of Michigan believes it is possible for the school district to continue for years into the future — if state and local leaders are willing to look at all the facts and make hard decisions.”

Leix said the school district has exhausted all the emergency loan dollars it can borrow under state law.

“In addition, the state Treasury Department has no emergency loan dollars available to lend,” Leix said.

Students and alumni are defending the high school on social media, including Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad, who has organized a protest rally against the plan for June 11 in Lansing.

Muhammad, whose daughter graduated from the high school this spring and who has two more children in the district, said he was especially shocked by the proposal from the governor and treasury department given that Whitmer campaigned on supporting public education when she came to Benton Harbor last year.

"There was nothing in her campaign that would allude to shutting down schools, turning public schools into charter districts or dissolving districts," Muhammad said

“To come up with this kind of radical change that is going to impact the community that has a high school for 140 years, that you are going to dissolve this district, it's hard for me to believe this just got on your desk."

Several members of the State Board of Education oppose aspects of the plan, specifically the lack of involvement of the local school board in the plan’s development and informing select members of the community and district staff prior to the Benton Harbor School Board. 

State board member Pamela Pugh came to Benton Harbor on Tuesday night to support the local board in their demands for a role in the plan.

“It’s very difficult to get trust back once you have eroded that trust,” Pugh said of Whitmer. “I would hate for her to lose that trust that she has in Benton Harbor and all other communities of color that voted for her and put her in office.

"… If she is not coming with a blank sheet of paper, I could understand why this community would have issues meeting with her.”