Benton Harbor rejects Whitmer high school closure plan

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
The crowd shouts "No justice, no peace" at  the Benton Harbor School Board's special meeting to discuss the state's proposal to close the high school on June 4.

Lansing — The Benton Harbor Area Schools Board on Friday formally rejected a state plan to close the city’s high school, leaving the fate of the cash-strapped district in limbo.

"The board would prefer not to respond to the proposed plan at this time because the board believes a response would likely divide our community and create an adversarial relationship with the governor’s office and the other state officials," Joseph Taylor, vice president of the school board, said during a special meeting Friday where the board rejected the plan.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration had proposed closing the high school to avoid complete dissolution of the predominately African American district, arguing a smaller K-8 system would make it easier for officials to pay off $18.4 million in debts.

The Whitmer administration wanted a response by midnight Friday, and the school board met for the sole purpose of adopting a "respectful" statement formally opposing the plan, Taylor said.

“The Board believes that it is in the best interest of all involved to continue to work together with state officials,” the statement says.

“To that end, we will submit a more robust and viable education plan for state officials to consider that includes providing our high school students with the option of attending a majority-minority high school here in Benton Harbor.”


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The board is pitching an alternative turnaround plan and on Wednesday submitted to the state what the administration has called an “outline.”

Neither the administration nor school board has disclosed any details of that alternative.

“The focus is on doing what’s best for the students of Benton Harbor,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said Friday afternoon. “At this point, what has been submitted will be reviewed and discussion with the school board are ongoing.”

Daniel Martin, school board attorney, said the state does still reserve the right to reject the plan. 

"We want to work collaboratively with the state officials both in treasury, the department of education as well as the governor’s office to kind of create a collaborative solution that will work to the best interest of all the students in Benton Harbor area schools," he said Friday. "I feel better today rather than last week because we have a plan moving forward. Our plan has been much more fleshed out, a lot more detail then there was even on Wednesday."

The high school closure plan has sparked fierce opposition in a city that has struggled amid decades of white flight, racial strife and a shrinking student population. 

Under the administration’s proposal, Benton Harbor students would have been sent to one of eight high schools in neighboring communities or given the option to join a career technical training program in partnership with nearby Lake Michigan College.

Brown said Whtimer, Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist and state Treasurer Rachael Eubanks have spent the past few weeks listening to local officials, leaders, students and parents.

The governor’s top priority is “making sure every child in Benton Harbor has a path to post-secondary success," she said.

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State lawmakers from Detroit voted Friday to stand in solidarity with Benton Harbor, joining a fight on the other side of the state to keep the local high school open.

“As we have witnessed firsthand in Detroit, the loss of a school can devastate a community and disenfranchise the students affected in ways that extend far beyond the classroom,” Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, chair of the Detroit caucus, said in a statement.

“While it will be important that they work with the Department of Education and the Treasury in developing a comprehensive plan, the Benton Harbor School Board is right in demanding local control over their school district.”

It’s not clear when the administration will make any additional decisions about the district, which has also struggled with poor academic performance.

Taylor said he did not expect an immediate response to the school board statement. But he did find a silver lining in all the debate. 

“I’m so glad this did happen," he said, "because this woke up a sleeping giant. Because now across the country, everybody’s calling in.”