Editorial: Whitmer's plan best bet for Benton Harbor

The Detroit News

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is getting a tough lesson right now in Michigan’s education governance quagmire. Perhaps she and former Gov. Rick Snyder should get together to commiserate over the challenges governors here face when it comes to school reform. 

Whitmer is absolutely right to bring attention to the poorly run Benton Harbor school district. Her proposal to close the district’s main high school, in addition to another building, to address the district’s severe debt is sound.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer addresses residents of Benton Harbor at a special community meeting on June 5  to discuss the state's proposal to close the high school.

This isn’t just about money — the governor has also pointed to the academic failures in the district. High school students would benefit from a better education at neighboring schools. 

But the facts of the situation have gotten lost in the political fight over who calls the shots at Benton Harbor schools. 

More:AG's office: Whitmer lacks authority to close Benton Harbor schools

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Whitmer doesn’t have many options. She cannot force the closing of the school. Nor does she have direct influence over the actions of the State Board of Education, which is independently elected, or the state school superintendent, who is hired by the board. Her hands are effectively tied, thanks to Michigan’s ineffective system of education governance that puts it in a minority of states that don’t allow the governor to pick top school leaders.

This structure similarly stymied Snyder during his eight years in office. As a workaround, he created the now-defunct Education Achievement Authority to take over low-performing schools in Detroit. And at one point, out of frustration with the Michigan Department of Education, he moved the state’s School Reform Office to the oversight of another state office that he controlled. 

To add a further complication to the Benton Harbor situation, a “collaborative agreement” the district signed last year with the School Reform Office to address academic challenges, administrative turnover and financial shortfalls, is void as of June 30. 

That’s because the state law requiring a school reform officer — in place for the last decade — was eliminated as part of a broader education measure signed by Snyder at the end of last year. That means Benton Harbor no longer has a formal turnaround agreement with the state.

More:Editorial: A new year to get school reform right?

“We are waiting to see what the district and governor can agree to in the form of a plan moving forward,” said Martin Ackley, education department spokesman, in an email. 

The Benton Harbor has had several such agreements over the past six years with the state and still faces the same academic and financial struggles is good reason for Whitmer to advocate more extreme action. 

Under a 2013 law, only the state treasurer and superintendent can jointly decide to dissolve a district if it meets a set of strict criteria. Benton Harbor isn’t there yet, but it’s moving swiftly in that direction. 

Whitmer is trying to salvage as much of the district as possible before more drastic action, such as dissolving it entirely, is necessary. 

Her only other option at this point is to deploy a financial review team, which given the district’s more than $18 million in debt, could easily find a financial emergency and raise the threat of a state-appointed emergency manager.

Whitmer, despite her lack of authority to enforce the current plan, has offered the district an option it should take. It could save the community more pain down the road.