Facing protest, Whitmer says system ‘failed’ Benton Harbor kids

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad, right, and other activists rally outside Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's office on June 11, 2019.

Lansing — Benton Harbor parents should be angry about a state education system that has “failed their kids,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Tuesday as protesters rallied against her plan to close the city’s high school and local officials prepared an alternative.

Mayor Marcus Muhammad and a small, vocal band of Benton Harbor parents, former students and activists blasted Whitmer’s proposal outside her Lansing office, calling the cash-strapped and academically struggling high school an integral part of the predominantly African-American city.

“Our legacy is very rich,” Muhammad said. “In 170 days of the Whitmer administration, we’ve been told that 144 years is going to be thrown down the drain.”

Protesters accused Whitmer of acting like Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder, who installed emergency managers in several black communities with financial troubles and dissolved a struggling school district in Buena Vista. Instead of standing with residents who voted for her, Whitmer is standing “with the DeVos privatizers,” they argued.

But the governor defended her plan earlier Tuesday in remarks before a gathering of the Michigan Legislative Black Caucus and the NAACP, calling it a “genuine attempt” to help students in a district ravaged by decades of enrollment declines and disinvestment under past administrations.

Under the proposal, Benton Harbor High School and a smaller alternative high school would close. Students would instead attend one of eight local high schools in neighboring communities or get a CTE-focused education and earn college credits in partnership with nearby Lake Michigan College.

The plan would give locals a path to pay off $18.4 million in short- and long-term debts without completely dissolving the district, which would have the ability to “reboot” the high school once that debt is retired, Whitmer said.

“I know there are people who are unhappy with it, and I don’t blame them for being unhappy,” she said. “The system and the education system has failed their kids, and they should be unhappy. But I’m trying to fix it. I want Benton Harbor to retain the ability to have a school district and not just be dissolved like we’ve seen in other communities.”

Benton Harbor school board vice president Joseph Taylor said Tuesday that the board has presented an alternative proposal to the governor’s office that contains a deficit elimination plan and an education plan.

Taylor declined to provide a copy of the plan to The Detroit News, saying he was meeting with Whitmer and her staff on Wednesday. He did say it keeps the high school open and the district whole.

“It’s a robust plan. It’s a plan better than what was offered to us,” Taylor said. “We are meeting with the governor on Wednesday to discuss it.”

Taylor said the board accepted district CEO Robert Hererra’s resignation, effective June 30, at a board meeting Monday night and appointed Patricia Robinson to be assistant superintendent as the board searches for a new superintendent in July.

However, attorneys for the board informed Taylor that the cooperative agreement was still in place.

“The board was under the assumption we have total control," Taylor said. “I would say I was taken aback. It is what it is. Truly we only have a few weeks left in the cooperative agreement.”

Bill Pearson, the state School Reform Officer, told the State Board of Education on Tuesday that the Benton Harbor school board did not want to terminate the cooperative agreement after it accepted Hererra's resignation.

“I was assured that is what they wanted to do it. It was surprising and disappointing,” Pearson told the board. “I do not know why they don’t want to."

Whitmer said earlier Tuesday that she is open to hearing other ideas, noting she was also scheduled to sit down with Muhammad later in the day.

“We’ve put a thoughtful solution on the table,” she told reporters after the NAACP event. “If someone has a viable alternative that (the Michigan Treasury and Department of Education) feel addresses the outcomes for the kids as well as the debt, then we’re certainly interested in considering it.”

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.

Muhammad declined to discuss details of the School Board’s alternative plan but said he supports it in concept.

Suggesting a conspiracy to force sale of prime property the high school sits on near the St. Joseph River, the mayor threatened to block future development if the high school is shuttered. Speaking with reporters prior to the protest, Muhammad also reiterated his threat to block the annual KitchenAid Senior PGA Championship event.

The Rev. Carlton Lynch of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Benton Harbor joined Muhammad at the protest, noting he hosted Whitmer at a campaign event before she was elected and outlined her education plans focused on building up rather than tearing down.

“It seems as though she has taken advantage of the black vote,” Lynch said. “It breaks our heart.”

Benton Harbor has struggled amid decades of white flight and racial strife. Attorneys for black students sued over racial segregation in 1967, and a federal court in 1981 issued a voluntary desegregation order that involved busing students between magnet schools in the Benton Harbor, Coloma and Eau Claire school districts.

Muhammad said he believes race remains a factor in state decisions regarding the district.

“There’s 22 other municipalities in southwest Michigan, and the only high school that’s being closed is Benton Harbor, which just happens to be 90% black,” Muhammad said. “So I think the evidence is overwhelming. If it's not race, then how can it be explained any other way?”

Whitmer said her plan is focused “first and foremost” on Benton Harbor students and ensuring they have access to a high-quality education despite the long-term struggles of their local school district and lack of support under prior administrations.

“We know that right now, because of historical inequitable funding mechanisms, that we got different outcomes for different kids in our state, and a lot of them cut along racial lines,” she said “We just got to be honest about that.”

The governor touted her 2020 budget proposal, which included $507 million in additional K-12 classroom funding that would provide extra money to districts with a higher number of at-risk, special education or career technical education students.

“Every child in this state has what I think is a birthright to a good education,” Whitmer said. “I wrote a budget based on that value.”