Gov. Whitmer to Benton Harbor High: Raise scores, balance books or close

Benton Harbor school officials must decide whether to accept the state’s tough terms to keep its high school open. The standoff has produced emotional community pushback against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's plan.

Increasing teacher pay, hiring a “highly-qualified” superintendent, achieving better standardized test scores, adopting a balanced budget — these are the type of benchmarks Benton Harbor High School must meet this next school year to avoid closure, according to new details of a tentative agreement between the struggling school district and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration. 

According to an overview released by the State Department of Treasury Monday, the school district would be required to meet a variety of goals within the next academic year as a condition of being given one more year to raise student achievement and address its finances. The Benton Harbor School Board will vote on the agreement Tuesday evening.

If the district does meet agreed-upon benchmarks, the high school will be allowed to stay open as the district continues to pay down $18 million in debt and improve student performance in one of the poorest performing districts in the state. 

Other benchmark examples offered by the administration include: 

  • Reducing the amount of money spent on “non-instructional expenditures”
  • Increasing the number of certified teachers and reducing the number of long-term substitute teachers
  • Increase student growth and proficiency on state and national standardized tests 
  • Decreasing the number of “chronically absent” students
  • Requiring school board members to participate in leadership training
  • Adopt a balanced budget 

To provide support for the district, the presentation calls for local educators, community members and philanthropic leaders to hear from “national experts from nonprofit organizations who have a proven track record of turning around struggling districts” in mid-July. The statement indicates the state will help “find support to engage those experts.” 

Failure to meet established benchmarks carries this blunt warning:  “If BHAS does not meet the Year 1 benchmarks outlined in the agreement, the Board agrees to suspend operations of the high school. The district would partner with surrounding districts to serve students in grades 9-12.”

The Benton Harbor School Board is reviewing the agreement, the presentation says, which will include quantitative goals that the district will be required to meet. Monday’s release adds details to an agreement first made public last week. 

The possible benchmarks are the latest developments in a controversy that has been an early example of the new Governor’s negotiating style, but one that has produced blowback from a heavily Democratic, predominantly African-American community frustrated with her proposal to close the school and scatter high schoolers to 10 other schools in the area. 

“The State of Michigan’s number one concern has been developing a plan that puts students first and improves outcomes for kids in the Benton Harbor District,” Whitmer spokesman Tiffany Brown said in a statement. 

School board members present at a meeting last week “indicated that they were interested in pursuing this framework,” according to the Treasury presentation. The final agreement should be signed by the end of July. 

The Benton Harbor School District could not immediately be reached for comment Monday. 

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Mon, 07/01/2019 - 8:56pm

To achieve all of these goals in one year I would call mission impossible.

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 4:16pm

Agreed. Another unintended consequence from inforced bussing that started in the 70s?

Kevin Grand
Tue, 07/02/2019 - 7:05am

So, nothing really changes. The status quo essentially remains the same.

Here is what will happen in one years time: BHAS students scores will not significantly improve, if at all. The district will burn through even more money. And when one year comes up, they will cite race (yet again), along with a litany of other excuses concocted during that one year on why they have failed.

This story has played out before.

It WILL play out again.

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 7:48am

Kevin- You are correct. All this does is hold back for another year those students that want to learn and to be with similar students in a neighboring school district as the Adrian Schools Issue proved. Again, community activists putting themselves ahead of Student Achievement.

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 8:15am

A strategy to buy time and placate supporters while looking like you're exercising leadership and doing something to low information voters. Well played unless you're a BH student.

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 7:56pm

The Govenor will accomplish what she has set out to do - maybe a year later than planned, but by putting the fate of the high school and ultimately the entire district into the hands of the community leaders by adopting "their plan" she will walk away with clean hands in the end. Which, let's face it, is the only option she had without being labeled a racist among other things. I think we can all agree that this "plan" is as close to "doing nothing " as you can get though! No Supt, no CFO, no idea of next years enrollment, $18M debt. Kudos to the optimistic thinkers in BH, but at some point reality has to set in.

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 8:59am

In one year very little will be different. The near consensus among researchers is that on average the school accounts for no more than about 20% of the educational accomplishments of the students. The remaining 80% is beyond the control of the school. Here is one of the better articles on school improvement.
"Like many rich Americans, I used to think educational investment could heal the country’s ills—but I was wrong. Fighting inequality must come first."

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 7:58am

This is the easy sucker bet also, thinking that the most important aspect of equality is measured by dollars. Maybe with so many single parent homes and the disadvantages that come with that, we can pass a law removing one parent from all 2 parent homes? There are many more we'll have to fix to make things "equal".

Wed, 07/03/2019 - 8:08am

Update: The Benton Harbor Board of Education has rejected the tentative deal.

David Andrews
Thu, 07/04/2019 - 9:45am

Typically, in problem solving, the most effective manner to detect decreasing quality is a time line analysis: Begin in, say 1940 or 1950 and plot the BH education quality on a year by year basis. Look for periods when the slope was positive and when it turned negative. Were there step changes? Were there inflection points in the slope? Now evaluate what occurred at or just preceding these step changes and inflection points.

It would be interesting to note on that line major BH events :
Closing of Whirlpool facilities, Ausco and other industries
Unionization of teachers in BH
Increases in control of administration and curriculum by State of Michigan
State funding of local schools
When changes in Superintendents occurred

There is no way to fix BH schools unless and until we know the actual root cause of the problem.

Stevie G
Mon, 07/08/2019 - 3:52pm

I'm 63 WM. White politicians from Granholm to Snyder to the Blue Cross girl, take over black communities illegally, then they sell off their assets to other white people in an attempt to destroy and profit off the black community.
They stole Benton Harbour's only beach for a St. Joseph resort now steals their school to populate a Devos for profit charter school.
When does this obvious systemic corrupt single-party government sponsored power grab end?

Native Angel
Tue, 07/09/2019 - 5:10pm

What do you think white communities have done and still do to Native communities across the world? Look at Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and Harbor Springs. Why do white folks always take and take and take? They are never satisfied. It is a privilege to own a home! White people want a mansion on the shoreline and not a cabin. I repeat that they want 2.5 million dollar mansions for 3 months of the year. They can't even handle winter in Northern Michigan. Look outside of the Black and White racial binary. The STATE O' MI doesn't like Native, Black, or Brown folks.