Whitmer goes to Benton Harbor again for school talks

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who addressed residents of Benton Harbor at a special community meeting on June 5, was back in town Tuesday for talks on the district's future.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and members of her staff traveled to Benton Harbor for a second time to meet with school board members to continue talks over how to move the beleaguered district forward.

Whitmer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and Benton Harbor Area School board leadership met Tuesday afternoon to discuss next steps in the district after the school board rejected her revised plan to stave off high school closures.

"The lines of communication are open among all parties and we look forward to future discussions to identify a solution that puts Benton Harbor students first," said a joint statement from Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown and school board president Steve Mitchell said.

School board vice president Joseph Taylor declined comment after the meeting.

The Benton Harbor board unexpectedly rejected the district turnaround plan last week after the Whitmer administration had already announced a tentative agreement, siding with disgruntled residents wary of state intervention.

On Monday, Whitmer said she was planning “direct conversations” with Benton Harbor leaders this week.

 “We’re hopeful that the board gets back to the table,” Whitmer said in Charlotte. “I was very disappointed in the action that was taken in the last meeting after there had been considerable good-faith negotiations and conversations. But we remain committed to trying to resolve this.”

The Whitmer administration had initially pushed to close the city’s primary and alternative high schools in order to save the cash-strapped district from financial collapse and dissolution.

Whitmer came to Benton Harbor with her staff on June 5 to urge the community to embrace her plan to close the district's two high schools and send those students to surrounding districts in lieu of dissolving the district's over its $18.4 million deficit.

The closure plan prompted widespread outcry in the predominantly African American city, and the administration two weeks ago proposed an alternative that called for the school district to improve the academic performance of its 1,800 students and, at the same time, reduce its staggering debt.

The pact set benchmarks to show whether the district made academic financial progress after a year. But local residents doubted the district’s ability to meet those goals in a single year, arguing more time would be needed to make improvements.

 “It wasn’t about getting to 100%,” Whitmer said. “It was about showing real improvement. And I think that’s important. We’ve got to ensure for the children of Benton Harbor that they’re getting the education they need to be successful.”

The state plan set goals to related to raising teacher pay, balancing the budget, hiring a highly qualified superintendent and chief financial officer and retaining them for the entire school year, and increasing the number of certified teachers while decreasing the use of substitutes, according to the overview.

Other proposed benchmarks included improving student growth and proficiency, reducing the number of students who are chronically absent, ensuring board members take leadership training sessions and reducing non-instructional expenditures.

If the benchmarks were met, the state would provide unidentified “supports” to the school district, according to an overview.

In rejecting the deal, board member Patricia Rush disputed claims that members had reached any agreement — tentative or otherwise — with the administration. 

“We never agreed to any of it,” she said. “This has to be a partnership.”

The Whitmer administration fired back, producing a June 27 email Rush wrote to the state that seemed to acknowledge the consensus reached by the two sides in an earlier meeting.

When details of the tentative agreement were released by the state Treasury Department, Rush began getting threatening calls from residents who accused the school board of selling out, she said during the meeting.

Rush said the board wouldn’t agree to even a tentative deal unless the state agreed to increase funding by a minimum of $1.3 million a year so the school system could fill all its teaching positions at salaries comparable to neighboring districts.

She also said Benton Harbor would never agree to a tentative deal that included the proposed closing of the high school.

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.

On Tuesday, former Benton Harbor board member Marletta Seats was awaiting word on how the meeting went. Seats, who was not in attendance, said Whitmer's decision to come to Benton Harbor again signaled the issue was important to her and her administration.

"I'm anxiously waiting to see how well the dialogue went," Seats said.

Staff member Francis X. Donnelly contributed.