Pistons hire former Suns coach Monty Williams after 'significant' offer

Bankole: Deal or no deal, Benton Harbor crisis remains

Bankole Thompson

Benton Harbor — The tentative agreement between Benton Harbor's school board and state officials to save the city’s only high school appears to reflect what was on the table all along. When the state indicated it was planning on shutting down the high school, the move would have taken effect in the 2020 school year.

Benton Harbor High School students walk past the front of the high school in Benton Harbor, Mich., Tuesday, June 11, 2019, in preparation of an annual Peace Walk held at the end of the school year.  The Benton Harbor School Board has released a plan aimed at keeping the district's high school open and avoiding a state-threatened shutdown of the struggling district.

A May 23 letter from the Michigan Department of Treasury to Benton Harbor families stated, “Under this plan, starting in the 2020-2021 school year, high school students will be able to attend one of seven local high schools in their area or get a Career and Technical Education-focused education and earn college credits in partnership with Lake Michigan College.” 

The deal doesn’t guarantee they won't close the high school in the future. If academic improvements are not made in the next 12 months, closure remains a possibility.

That’s why the compromise ought to be viewed critically. The factors that triggered the threat of a closure haven’t changed, and in the real world there is no way to see dramatic and positive changes in just one year for a system that has been abused for so long.

It appears the deal was hastily put together as a quick fix and to also avert the apparent political anguish and possible loss of political favor the governor has been facing over this issue.

I spent days in Benton Harbor this week talking to people who stand to be affected by the crisis and deal is being received with skepticism. I spent more days in this small black city getting to the bottom of the issues than Whitmer has. Their thoughts about the prospect of no high school unraveled some larger socioeconomic and political implications.

Countless hours of conversations about Benton Harbor’s future reveals a city under political death watch with the absence of primary institutions that are standard in any functioning city. There is no major hospital. There is no municipal court system.

The sole remaining institution left intact is the school system. Eliminating the high school decimates the educational institution, which in effect destroys the future of Benton Harbor.

“Closing down the high school will be educational genocide,” said Greg Hill, 18, who just graduated from Benton Harbor High School on June 7. Hill, who is headed to Lake Michigan College, said the much-trumpeted zero percent college readiness is false.

“Many of the students who graduated will be going to college,” Hill said. “I have about 15 friends I know of who are college-ready now, and will be heading to Grand Valley State University, Oakland State University, Ball State University, Arkansas Baptist College and other schools. The perception of no graduation undermines our high school. This is a deliberate misinformation.”

For Hill, Benton Harbor will always be home. In fact, he plans to pursue studies in education so he could return to teach at the high school he described as a community of “regular people doing regular things with untapped potential and greatness.”

When I visited the home of Damarion Lewis, 16, and Janyia Lewis 15, both of whom attend the high school, they echoed similar sentiments.

“I like the school because I’m in the band and that makes me feel comfortable because all of my friends go there and we all have a great chemistry together,” Damarion told me. “Closing down the school will separate us from what we want to do in our lives.”

His younger sister Janyia, who wants to be a veterinarian, said some of her friends have already switched schools.

If Whitmer is serious about tackling the urban crisis in Benton Harbor, she needs to spend some real time there instead of jetting in for a town hall and then leaving right after. Her administration seems very dismissive of any question regarding an urban agenda.

Press secretary Tiffany Brown didn’t respond to an inquiry about who is in charge of urban issues. It’s a stunningly remarkable change in direction for a Democratic governor who campaigned on urban issues to win black votes. 

We’ll see if Whitmer ends up pulling the plug on Benton Harbor, a city on life support, during her tenure.