Benton Harbor crisis a tipping point for Gretchen Whitmer, school takeovers

Benton Harbor High School

Benton Harbor faces the possible closure of its high school. Negotiations between the local school board and the state are ongoing.

Originally posted on Chalkbeat July 15, 2019

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s attempt to close the struggling high school in majority black Benton Harbor provoked a furious backlash from the city’s 10,000 residents. Her next move has implications for districts across the state.

As Whitmer and the board continue negotiating, observers say the outcome could reshape how Michigan approaches struggling school districts far beyond Benton Harbor that are struggling with rising debts, low test scores, and declining enrollment.

“People in Flint are looking at this,” said Eric Scorsone, a former deputy state treasurer and director of the Center for Local Government Finance & Policy at Michigan State University Extension. “A lot of other communities are looking at this ‒ maybe in Saginaw or suburban Detroit.”

A fierce debate has raged in Michigan for years over the state’s policy of taking over cities and school districts that are in financial or academic ruts. Critics point out that black people are disproportionately affected by the policy ‒ at one point, roughly half of African Americans in Michigan lived in a city run by a state-appointed emergency manager.


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.

Governors from both parties have advocated for state takeovers, which are allowed under a Michigan law passed in 1990. Jennifer Granholm, a Democrat, named an emergency manager to oversee the Detroit school district and other municipalities. Rick Snyder, Whitmer’s Republican predecessor, expanded powers granted to emergency managers and appointed them in several cities and school districts.

On the campaign trail, Whitmer promised to eliminate the state’s emergency management law. But just months into her governorship, Whitmer found herself in a national media spotlight focused on the racial overtones of her approach to Benton Harbor.

Related: Benton Harbor plans new pitch to save its high school

She hasn’t gone as far as appointing an emergency manager, instead attempting to find common ground with the local board. Still, her willingness to make a strong intervention ‒ at one point threatening to dissolve the district if she didn’t get her way ‒ has surprised some observers.

“She’s taking an aggressive school reform stance in a community that would be part of her political base,” said Ben DeGrow, director of education policy at the Mackinac Center, a libertarian-leaning think tank. “To that extent, it is kind of surprising.”

DeGrow suspects Whitmer underestimated the backlash, which he says was fueled in part by the fraught history of previous state takeovers in Michigan.

Critics point out that an emergency manager in Flint made changes that led to the city’s crisis of lead-tainted drinking water, and some in Detroit note that the city district’s debt ballooned under emergency managers who were supposed to cut costs.

Even if Whitmer doesn’t manage to change the state’s emergency management law, Mike Addonizio, a professor of education at Wayne State University, said her next move in Benton Harbor has major implications for the future of state interventions.

“It is kind of an inflection point,” he said. “What is the state going to do with school districts like this?”

Benton Harbor has long been a case study of Michigan’s ‒ and America’s ‒ toxic racial divide. Set in the state’s southwest corner, on the coast of Lake Michigan, the city is largely poor and its residents mostly African American. Its neighbors in every direction are generally white and more affluent. For decades, the area was under orders from a federal court to desegregate its schools.

When a court-ordered busing program was canceled in 2002, many black families continued to send their children to school outside of Benton Harbor, making use of a state policy that allows families to cross district lines.

Nearly two-thirds of school-age children in Benton Harbor today attend school outside the city, taking the state funding that attaches to each student with them. Those who remained have struggled. Zero high school juniors have been deemed college ready in the last five years based on their SAT scores.

Addonizio would like to see the legislature intervene with a strategy similar to the $617 million deal that helped the Detroit district avoid bankruptcy, but he said the prospects of that are slim. Republican leaders and Whitmer are locked in negotiations over how to pay for Michigan’s crumbling roads.

Whitmer has insisted that something has to change in Benton Harbor. DeGrow agreed, though he added that there is “no clear easy path forward.”

“Just continuing on the same track isn’t an option,” he said. “So maybe now is the time for the community to think big and bold.”

On Saturday, the board announced that it would send Whitmer a proposal of its own to raise test scores and pay for the district’s $18 million debt. A spokesperson for Whitmer said discussions are ongoing.

Still, solving Benton Harbor’s issues won’t solve the structural problems that have produced similar situations in districts across the state.

“It could be Kalamazoo. Could be Battle Creek. Could be Muskegon,” said Tom Pedroni, an activist and education professor at Wayne State University.

Pedroni says the struggles of urban districts have been worsened by state policies that allow students to leave for other districts, by a relentless focus on test scores, and by a funding system that doesn’t adequately account for the challenges of educating poor students.

“The way that we label schools as failing creates an almost mathematical formula that yields the decimation of school districts of color across the state,” he said. “How do we, as a state, take seriously the mechanisms that cause things like this.”

Koby Levin is a reporter for Chalkbeat Detroit, which originally published this article. 

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Mon, 07/22/2019 - 10:17am

There are 5'8" guys who can dunk a basketball and there are schools with high poverty who have good test scores, but both are rare. Height is highly correlated to the ability to dunk a basketball and the socioeconomic status of the parents is highly correlated to a school's test scores. We don't know how to raise a person height , but as Dr. Addonizio said there are things the legislature could do to improve the academic achievement of the Benton Harbor students, but they most likely won't.

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 8:14pm

Have you ever considered why there seems to be a correlation between socioeconomic status and student learning successes? Have you ever considered that wealth isn't the factor, but simply a by product? What if the student sees, everyday, what learning successes allows? What if students see in their parents, their neighbors, their community people that have achieve academic success and realize that they those around them use learning everyday and the apply the same practices that the students use in school for learning success? What if the successful district are wealthy because the achieve academic success when they were in school so they create a culture that values studying, that the students socialize around studying, that the kids the students gravitate to reinforce their own practices and in the academically successful districts the students are working to learn, to succeed academically, to be prepared for college?
I think this article and all those included in it are focus on the adults, the money, and the politics, and the only time the show interest in the students is when they need and excuse to justify everything else they do. Not once in the article is there any mention of what success looks like, not when describing what more money could achieve, what a school a successful school district should be doing or what results they should be delivering? How can there been any hope for Benton Harbor, Flint, Muskegon, if everyone is using a different view of success?
Why should we trust Dr. Addonzio's plan if we don't even know how to recognize if it is working, without a description of success and the performance metrics to assess the program we would have nothing different than what we have today.

Paul Jordan
Mon, 07/22/2019 - 11:04am

Just so you have some background, I live in Flint, and I was one of the plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit to challenge Michigan's emergency manager laws.

By now, nobody in Michigan should think that a state takeover of a city government or school district is any kind of miracle cure for anything. (People point to the 'success' of an emergency manager in Detroit, but that 'succeeded' only through the city's bankruptcy--and the justification in the first place for the EM law was to avoid bankruptcy in the first place.)

Gov. Whitmer seems poised to fall into the same trap that befell Gov. Granholm--trying to adapt to a reality created by decades of Republican undermining of public education rather than championing what has been demonstrated in other states to improve public education.

What makes K-12 education more successful is adequate funding to attract and retain talented career teachers, consistent ongoing state support for teacher continuing education, well-equipped schools, and local control of school districts to meet reasonable and consistent state standards. We don't have any of this in Michigan anymore. In short, what helps is a state government that is a partner to teachers and school districts, not their master.

K-12 education in Michigan has now failed. The Republican experiment of fiscal deprivation, neglect, victimization of teachers, disabling continual change, and privatization has succeeded in degrading what was once a shining example of a public good. It is naive for anyone to pretend that this was not their secret goal from the start, as declared enemies of governmental supports.

Governor Whitmer should call them out, and champion what has been successful elsewhere rather than try to pretend that state government has any real solutions to offer, under the present circumstances. This isn't her mess, and she shouldn't act as if it is.

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 8:24am

How do you keep local liabilities from being off loaded on to state tax payers? If this is guaranteed not to happen, you are correct and the state should butt out and allow locales to go alone, even bankrupt. But if local bills and debts can get foisted off onto the state, he who has the money makes the rules. What does the state constitution say about this?

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 8:53am

This is a much more complex issue than you present. All of the systems in this state are BROKEN!! This has been coming for years due to the polarization of our state legislature, illegitimate republican control through gerrymandering, the republican mindset of cutting taxes and a what is mine is mine attitude. Not one of these republicans want to own their responsibility in this mess. Built into all of our systems today is the structural racism they do not want to face. The auto industry gave us a century of "wealth and corruption." It also gave us high wages and an entitlement mentality.

Whitmer is trying to address these issues because she knows the "buck stops here". Of course it would be easy to blame others and not take responsibility for how to handle this, but that does not solve the problem. I wish all of you "commenters" would step back and stop "reacting" to every attempt at problem solving and really research how MI got here. MI is now competing with Alabama to rank at the bottom of heap. I am excited for 2020 and hope the legislature turns over dramatically and MI can finally get something done.

Mon, 07/22/2019 - 1:50pm

I see Betsey Devos fingerprints all over this. It's way too obvious.

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 8:15am

Of course! She has been secretly creeping around BH giving the kids the wrong answers for all their tests in a bid to funnel all their kids into her Hitler Youth Academy!

Steven WM 63 fo...
Mon, 07/22/2019 - 2:05pm

We see another "sponsor" of our "corporate democratic" governor.~~~The Charter School Industry. Would she have tried this in a white school district? NO, Same as the illegal City Manager corporate takeover of Black City's started under Granholm. Now we force "private for-profit" schools on them but fund those schools much better. Another Crony Dictator. Someone look into who financed her election. Follow the Money. Send her Back.

Miss young
Tue, 07/23/2019 - 2:12am

Let's all get together and Benton harbor Michigan and raises some money for the school

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 1:39pm

Here's the pkan

A successful plan will need to include the following:
·          Transitional funding in the amount of $500,000

·          Pre-K transitional funding in the amount of 325,000

·          The State will make an exception and provide State Aid Note funding  to BHAS on a monthly basis from June 31, 2019 through September 31, 2025

·          The state will forgive the 18/19 pupil student count adjustment on July 1, 2023,  contingent upon BHAS having no outstanding debt

·          A Transition Manager will have full control of the district from July 1, 2019 to August 31, 2021

·          A Transition Manager will report to the State Treasurer through June 30, 2021 and the FRC beginning July 1, 2021

·           A Transition Manager will gradually relinquish control back to the school board at the Transition Managers discretion from September 1, 2021 to June 30, 2023 and oversee a structured transition to full School Board control

·          The State will relinquish full control back to the School Board on July 1, 2023

·          Any change in the Transition Manager will void this agreement

·          A Transition Manager may close up to three buildings with the exception of the high school

·          The Transition Manager will eliminate all programming ( music, art, CTE, etc…) that is not required by the state between the hours of 6am and 2pm. Instruction during these hours will be limited to core curriculum by certified teachers under an updated wage schedule.

·          Music, Art, CTE, Robotics, Technology, Scouts, Culinary, etc.. would be taught by  part time teachers as part of a wrap around after school program

·          Tutoring would be available from 2-7pm and wrap around services would include dinner

·          Transition Manager will eliminate the use of all school buildings and properties to outside groups including rentals

·          Operations costs at BHAS are double the state average, the Transition Manager will cut costs by 40%

·          The district will implement an energy conservation program and reduce utility costs by 25

Wed, 07/24/2019 - 9:24am

With you interests in success for Benton Harbor students and school you are just only an iota better than all the rest. With all you efforts and thought you still don't mention anything about helping the students until the end of you long list of ideas. Its as if you are preoccupied with the trip and then as an after thought you are trying to decide where you want to go.
The tutoring time is an idea that could have a direct impact on the students, but if it is to simply put someone at a table waiting for students to ask questions, it will have little success.
The plan for Benton Harbor needs to start with where it wants to get to, is student learning goal or simply and excuse for all the effort? What will successful learning look like, how will it be verifies, should the students be able to do with it, it needs to be specific so all wanting Benton Harbor students to succeed will have the same purpose and will be working together rather then following their own visions.
I would see you thinking a path way to success if you have the purpose/outcome well defined and showed how each idea work to achieve those results.
Think of how you take a trip, you start with where you want to get to before you start planning and leave on the trip. Each project, whether it be the student learning or a political campaign or starting a business or raising a child needs to know where it is going if it is to be successful.