Jacques: Dissolving Benton Harbor schools may be best option

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Michigan Superintendent Michael Rice isn’t getting much time to ease into his new role. 

Rice started his job leading the state Department of Education at the beginning of the month, and he’s facing several serious challenges. 

With the school year quickly approaching, a top priority is going to be figuring out a path forward for the Benton Harbor school district. 

The district’s $18.4 million deficit, declining enrollment and terrible academic record have led to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s intervention — or at least her attempts to get involved. 

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Whitmer has put forward a plan to close the district’s high schools as a way to reduce the debt and give the district a chance to rebuild. The Benton Harbor school board, as well as many in the community, however, have voiced strong opposition to Whitmer’s plan. 

The Benton Harbor School District’s $18.4 million deficit, declining enrollment and terrible academic record have led to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s intervention — or at least her attempts to get involved, Jacques says.

The state Education Department no longer has a formal agreement with Benton Harbor schools to improve its finances and academics. A previous agreement was void as of July after the School Reform Office that oversaw the agreement dissolved following the passage of a new state law late last year. 

All eyes will be on Rice as he decides what approach to take. He could work out a partnership agreement with the district, as the state has done with other struggling districts. 

But Benton Harbor may be beyond that point. 

A 2013 law allows for the dissolution of school districts once they meet a set of criteria, and both the state superintendent and treasurer must agree that dissolving the district is the best option. The Legislature narrowly tailored the law to dissolve the Inkster and Buena Vista districts six years ago. 

Now, Benton Harbor could also face dissolution under the law, says Craig Thiel, research director at the Citizens Research Council of Michigan. Thiel says the district “clearly” meets the threshold necessary to trigger a dissolution. For example, he notes the district has operated with budget deficits since the mid-2000s. Similarly, enrollment has fallen 45% since 2009.

More than half of the students who live in Benton Harbor attend school at an outside district or a charter school. So parents recognizing the shortfalls in the city’s schools are already choosing options they see as better. 

“The next real milestone is who shows up for school in the first weeks of September,” says Thiel. 

With all the attention on Benton Harbor schools, he says the uncertainty and confusion may lead to even more enrollment declines — and heightened financial turmoil.  

It’s unlikely Rice will want to tackle such a politically turbulent decision right off the bat, but he’s going to have to at least consider it. 

“We are working with the Michigan Department of Treasury and providing technical support for every effort to develop a positive solution for Benton Harbor schools,” said MDE spokesman Martin Ackley in an email.

As more districts around the state face enrollment losses and financial shortfalls, the state needs to have a game plan for these schools. Thiel says other districts consistently showing up on the state’s deficit list include Flint, Hazel Park and Pinckney. 

Since Whitmer seems keen on avoiding the appointment of an emergency manager, the responsibility of dealing with these financially failing districts is going to fall on Rice.

And how the state handles Benton Harbor could become a template for other districts down the road.