State proposes panel to help save Benton Harbor schools

The Detroit News

State treasury and education officials met Friday with the Benton Harbor school board and proposed establishing a committee to develop a plan for rescuing the city's struggling school district.

A release issued Friday evening by the state Department of Treasury said the committee, tasked with creating an "operating plan" for the district, would include representatives from the school board, school district staff, parents, business leaders, and the state treasury and education departments.

Benton Harbor High School students walk past the front of the high school in Benton Harbor, Mich., Tuesday, June 11, 2019.

“Our goal is to work with the community to identify solutions for creating a viable K through 12 education system for Benton Harbor families,” State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks said in a statement. “Both myself and my team are looking forward to working with the school board, community and the Michigan Department of Education to forge a path forward that works for everyone.”

Eubanks, Deputy State Treasurer Joyce Parker, state school Superintendent Michael Rice and Office of Partnership Districts Director Bill Pearson discussed the proposed panel with Benton Harbor board members.

If the school board approves the idea, a Community Engagement and Advisory Committee would study the school district’s academics, finances, enrollment, and facility needs, according to the news release.

“We are committed to assisting the Department of Treasury and Benton Harbor community in developing financial and academic strategies that will work for the school district’s students and educators,” Rice said.

The school board is expected to discuss a resolution on the proposal at its next meeting the first week of September, president Stephen Mitchell said Friday night.

"We’re very excited about their plan that they presented. I think that it was really thoughtful and it’s something that the school district will be able to embrace as we move forward," he told The Detroit News.

"There are lot of positive things in their proposal to us. We're happy about the total inclusion of not only the board but the community ... and the willingness to work with all of us for the benefit of children."

The committee would issue a report with recommendations, which if adopted, would be followed by a timeline to be developed by the school district and the treasury department.

Benton Harbor school officials and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer have been in talks since May to find a way to operate the district and address its significant academic and financial challenges, including $18 million in debt.

Whitmer initially pushed to close the district's two high schools in 2020 in lieu of districtwide closure. But early this month, Rice said Benton Harbor's high schools — a main high school and a small alternative school — should not be shut down. 

The urban school district, whose 1,800 students are 92% black and 81% economically disadvantaged, has staggeringly low academic achievement and has been ravaged by years of declining enrollment.