Benton Harbor leaders lay out reasons to keep district

Southwest Michigan

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD) — Benton Harbor city officials gathered in the state capital Tuesday to defend the city’s school district as the state considers shutting down the high school or dissolving the district entirely.

“We’re here today to get in front of it and appeal to Gov. Whitmer that there is a better way,” Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad said outside the George W. Romney Building Tuesday.

Last month, the state announced a plan to shutter the high school in 2020 and send the students to several surrounding districts. The state said other options include disbanding the district altogether or turning it into a charter school system.

Facing opposition to the proposals, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she would give the district more time to come up with a “viable alternative,” which led to an open letter from the board urging a third option: keep the high school open and the district in place through “strong collaboration with the Governor’s Office and all State and Federal agencies” and “accountability on all sides.”

The letter asked the governor specifically to help the district address its debt — some $16 million, the state says — and ask the Michigan Department of Education to designate the district a critical shortage area so it can recruit retired teachers.

“There’s not one parent, there’s not one student that wants to see Benton Harbor High School close down. We just celebrated our 144th commencement. Benton Harbor High School is one of the oldest high schools in the state of Michigan. Our history, our legacy is very rich. And in 170 days of the Whitmer administration, we’ve been told that 144 years is going to be thrown down the drain,” Muhammad said.

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The mayor also mentioned speculation that shutting down the district was a land grab for development, announcing a plan to quash that possibility.

“If there’s no support for Benton Harbor High School in the city of Benton Harbor, then there’s no support for all of the development. So if Benton Harbor High School is going to be scrapped and put to the side, then all of the developments will be put on the table and will come to a screeching halt,” Muhammad announced.

Pastor Carlton Lynch said the plan announced by the Whitmer administration goes against what the Democrat said on the campaign trail. He said when his church hosted then-candidate Whitmer, she laid out an educational plan to “help strengthen that which remained” and had nothing to do with shutting down the high school.

“And it almost makes us believe that this candidate who is now our governor, it seems as though she’s taken advantage of the black vote. And so now our heart is broken,” Lynch said.

The Benton Harbor mayor met with Whitmer Tuesday afternoon.

The governor says she is open to a viable solutions that addresses the debt and the needs of students.

“When we looked at the outcomes for kids in combination with the debt, it was important that we have a swift and bold action here to ensure that the kids are getting the education that they need,” Whitmer said.

She said the proposal would allow the district to keep operating through the eighth grade.

“This is a suspension of a high school so that Benton Harbor can get their debt under control and their outcomes for kids turned around. It’s easier to do if you’re managing a K-8 education system and that’s why this was the solution that we put on the table,” Whitmer said.

Whitmer’s press secretary Tiffany Brown also released this statement later Tuesday:

“Governor Whitmer believes that every child in Michigan deserves a quality public education that gets them on a path to a good job. She remains committed to hearing from school board members, community leaders, and legislators about their concerns and ideas, and is open to any viable plan that will help students get on a path to success and resolve the district’s more than $18 million debt. The plan the state put on the table is the only solution we’ve found that puts students first and tackles the financial problems the Benton Harbor district is facing. Governor Whitmer extended the state’s original deadline for the school board to make a decision regarding the state’s proposal because she wants to make sure everyone’s voice is heard and all viable options get to the table. The governor’s first priority is and always has been ensuring Benton Harbor students can get on track to earn a postsecondary degree and build a life for themselves here in Michigan.”

Apollonia Williams, a parent and Benton Harbor graduate, says closing the school would devastate the community.

“They’re thinking about money. They’re thinking about the outcome of their pockets. They’re not thinking about our city. If our high school is gone, that is the heart of our city,” Williams said.

The demonstration in Lansing came a day after the school board accepted the resignation of superintendent Robert Herrera, giving the board more power over the district.

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