In Benton Harbor schools, a lesson for – and about – Gretchen Whitmer

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer answers questions from angry Benton Harbor residents at a June 5 meeting. (Bridge photo by Ted Roelofs)

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

Late afternoon turned to early evening in the crowded pews of Brotherhood of All Nations Church of God in Christ in Benton Harbor.

Angry residents pummeled Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with questions earlier this month. She answered and kept answering, staying in the church for almost four hours trying to explain why she believed it was in the best interest of Benton Harbor children to close the impoverished community’s lone high school and send those students elsewhere.

“I can see (my plan) is not being met with a lot of enthusiasm with many people in this room,” Whitmer said at one point. Before she made the two-hour trek back to the governor’s mansion in Lansing, she promised to extend the deadline to work out a deal with the Benton Harbor School Board.

The meeting between the Democratic governor and residents of this Democratic stronghold didn’t change many minds. But it did crystalize a governing style that at times risks alienating the governor’s supporters in an effort to resolve the state’s long-standing problems.

Her approach ‒ announcing bold plans and then asking critics to come up with something better ‒ was also on display when Whitmer agreed to a compromise on no-fault auto insurance that had stymied Lansing for years, and in promoting a 45-cent gas tax – a plan that at minimum got Republican leadership in the Legislature to the table to trade ideas on a long-term fix for Michigan’s crumbling roads.

How that style pans out in Benton Harbor is yet to be determined. After first threatening to dissolve the district if board members didn't agree to close its low-achieving high school, Whitmer was barraged with vociferous and sustained criticism from residents and leaders of the city, which cast 95 percent of its ballots in her favor last November.

The protest was soon joined by fellow Democrats including legislators from Detroit and the two Democratic African-American members of the state school board. Whitmer has since taken a more measured tone publicly, and is negotiating the fate of Benton Harbor schools with the local board behind closed doors.

The governor could still try to dissolve the entire school district, either by asking the Republican-led Legislature to take the step or by trying to use a 2013 law that allows the state treasurer and state school superintendent to dissolve a district under certain circumstances.

To ward that off, the local board presented Whitmer with a plan that would keep Benton Harbor High School open in exchange for agreements to pay down district debt and address low academic achievement in part through enhanced teacher recruitment and retention.

After publicly setting two deadlines for the board to accept her plan, Whitmer is now refraining from drawing more lines in the sand. Instead, in a statement released June 14, the governor’s office said state officials are “reviewing the plan” presented by Benton Harbor.

According to the statement, “the governor plans to continue working with the school board to ensure K-8 students have the support they need and to ensure high school students are on track to graduate postsecondary with a degree or skills certification.”

“She is very bold and focused on doing what she feels is best and what is right,” said Whitmer spokesperson Tiffany Brown. “When she tells you she’s going to do something, you should believe it.”

That’s a high risk/high reward leadership style, said several people who spoke to Bridge. Educators and political insiders, including Republicans and Democrats, offered a mix of praise and disappointment with the way the new governor has handled her first controversy involving Michigan’s struggling schools.

One high-ranking school official who is generally supportive of Whitmer, but declined to be identified, expressed dismay that the first major education action attempted by Whitmer, a Democrat who campaigned on providing more support for struggling students, was to try to shutter a low-income, majority-black school.

“She’s not handled it much different than what (former Republican Gov. Rick) Snyder did,” the official said. “I would have expected a Democratic governor to find another way, to find resources to assist that district, rather than the first recommendation being to close a high school.”

Whitmer’s argument has been that she wants to close the Benton Harbor High to give the community’s children a better, longer-term chance at success. No junior in the past five years was considered “college ready” by scores on standardized tests. Six years after graduation, just 6 percent of the class of 2011-12 had earned an associate’s degree or higher – one sixth the state average.

Under Whitmer’s plan, Benton Harbor high schoolers could choose to enroll from among 10 area high schools, with transportation provided to each.

The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, supported Whitmer’s plan to close Benton Harbor High, albeit reluctantly. “While the proposal … is not ideal, it’s the best solution for students and families,” MEA President Paula Herbart said in a May 24 statement.

But the plan to cut the cord on a failing high school and ship the majority-black student population to mostly majority-white districts was met with shock and anger in Benton Harbor.

“It frustrates our community, especially a predominantly African-American community that has supported Democrats,” Carlton Lynch of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Benton Harbor, said at a rally in Lansing June 10. “And it almost makes us believe that this candidate, who is now our governor...has taken advantage of the black vote. And now our heart is broken.”

Rep. Sherry Gay-Dagnogo, D-Detroit, said she and many Democratic legislators were caught flat-footed by the announcement Whitmer planned to close Benton Harbor’s high school.

“Dems are having cognitive dissonance grappling with something they normally deal with (with Republican governors)," Gay-Dagnogo, a former Detroit teacher generally supportive of Whitmer, told Bridge Thursday. "I think (the administration) underestimated what this feels like.

“If this was a strategy, I think it brought unnecessary (pain) in a district that has already suffered." 

John Truscott, CEO of Truscott Rossman public relations in Lansing and communications director for former Republican Gov. John Engler, said he admires Whitmer’s actions in Benton Harbor, even if the high school manages to survive closure.

Truscott said he recalls visiting Benton Harbor with Engler in the 1990s to talk community and school officials about how to improve the community’s schools, and having no luck.

“There is nothing that has been able to get Benton Harbor to fix its situation,” Truscott said. By threatening to close the high school, “She’s got people across the state engaged.

“We had a saying in the Engler administration – threaten death, and amputation will be welcomed,” Truscott said. “By putting (closure) on the table, she got people to the table,” Truscott said. “She’s shaken up the political culture. I give her credit for that.”

Tom Pedroni, associate professor of education at Wayne State University, questions whether Whitmer’s actions – taking a bold stance on closure and then agreeing to negotiations – was an intended strategy.

“I think she was shocked” by the negative reaction to close the high school, said Pedroni, who has been active in protesting Whitmer’s plan.

“Gov. Whitmer … was trying to execute through threat a deeply disruptive plan … (and) she’s only softening her approach now because she failed to anticipate the tremendous political blowback, and potential loss of political capital that she encountered across the state,” Pedroni said.

“This could be an important teachable moment for her. She needs to move beyond just trying to contain the political damage, to truly understanding and addressing the state policy mechanisms that will continue to grind away and throw into crisis predominantly black, low-income districts like Benton Harbor.”

The Benton Harbor district has been struggling for many years. It is $18 million in debt and has reached its loan maximum from the state. About $700 out of each student’s per-pupil funding from the state goes to debt repayment rather than the classroom.

The district had over 10,000 students in the 1970s, and today has about 1,900, with 64 percent of Benton Harbor youth attending school outside the district through schools of choice and charter schools. Almost half the teachers in the district aren’t certified teachers, but long-term substitutes who only are required to have 60 college credit hours.

“People say (Whitmer) mishandled this,” said Ken Sikkema, former Republican Senate Majority Leader who now works for Public Sector Consultants in Lansing. “OK, how should it have been handled? Everybody knows the situation in Benton Harbor, with dramatic decline, has been a long-standing issue.”

(Disclosure: Sikkema has performed consulting work for The Center for Michigan, the parent organization of Bridge Magazine.)

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad told a Lansing rally June 10 that Whitmer’s plan to shut the school hit the community “like a sledgehammer.”

But that may be what was needed to kick-start reform in a district that has been among the lowest-performing in the state for years, Sikkema said.

“I thought that took an awful lot of courage to stand up and say, ‘Look, this is unacceptable from the standpoint of these children needing a quality education. We’ve got to make a major change here,’ in a sense, forcing the issue and not treating it gingerly because it’s her political base,” Sikkema said.

While former governors have shut down school districts, Sikkema said he can’t recall any of them going to the communities and taking the heat from angry constituents themselves, like Whitmer did June 5 in Benton Harbor.

“That takes courage,” Sikkema said. “And when the community pushed back and said, we disagree with you, she said, ‘OK, what’s your plan?’ Not “Here’s our analysis and our solution,’ but ‘I’m open to other solutions if they turn around this trend of abysmally poor achievement, and deal with the (school debt).’”

However the Benton Harbor school standoff is resolved, Whitmer’s actions may be a preview of how the new governor will continue to confront problems during her term.

“I think you’re seeing a pattern that helps to define the kind of governor she intends to be,” Sikkema said. “Her proposal on the gas tax, her willingness to sign no-fault in the face of Democratic support groups (being opposed), you’re seeing a governor willing to come to agreements to solve big problems facing Michigan, willing to do things that are controversial even without political support.”

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Fri, 06/21/2019 - 8:53am

A democrat from Lansing going to a failed democrat city (Benton Harbor) to fix something? LOL. Albert Einstein nailed it when he said “The definition of insanity (democrats) is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” When 95% of the people vote for being enslaved? "Just move along folks. Nothing to see here."

Fri, 06/21/2019 - 9:53am

I agree with Bob. Good money after terrible results on a yearly basis, no measure of cost controls.

Kathi Geukes
Fri, 06/21/2019 - 9:53am

If you don't have a proper tax can a high school be supported?? How many adults in Benton harbor work?? How many are receiving state assistance?? They can be as upset as they want but it comes down to tax dollars.....I lived in Grand Rapids going to school and when hard times came quite a few schools were consolidated...we had to switch going to a different junior High....we got over it and made new friends.....we rode the bus or took the city big deal.....the problem in BH is not Gov. Whitmers's the people of BH's fault for not being able to lure jobs to their city and putting up with do nothing politicians who did just that for their children....NOTHING!!!!!

Sherry A Wells
Fri, 06/21/2019 - 11:45am

Yes, Kathi, and in most districts where schools were closed due to smaller enrollments--people having fewer children or long-time residents staying after their children are raised and gone and people moving further out into the suburbs and building their own newer schools or --you were still able to go to school in your district / community. As for tax base, my first comment--which should appear below soon--made two comments about that. "Lure jobs to their city"--I wonder about the percentage of BH residents who are employed for Whirlpool and the percentage of its employees who live outside the city. Whirlpool is the lead "partner" for the school district--is it offering any training for residents, for high school graduates to become employed bu it. And, by the way, one graduating senior was accepted at Stanford and another is getting a full ride to an Eastern university--both of them praising the teachers. And many others will be going to community college. (Which is about all most students can afford anywhere.) Oops! Somehow those facts haven't appeared anywhere. Not even Bridge.

Fri, 06/21/2019 - 10:06am

Benton Harbor went from 10,000 students to 2,000 and is bleeding money. The school was not serving its purpose for the students and had to be closed. The problem is squarely on the school of choice program that has allowed students and parents to shop for schools. It has benefited some school districts and hurt many others. It’s also accelerated the segregation of MI public schools. It’s going to be impossible to save many of the schools today because this allows people to run away from the problems in their community which then continue to be unresolved. It’s sad, but that’s the way the game is being played now. And all the protests to save some of these schools are falling on death ears because at some point money comes into play.

Fri, 06/21/2019 - 11:14am

Without the schools of choice program, Benton Harbor Schools and many other districts just like them would just be churning out more students who are not ready for life after High School. Thousands of kids in just this one district are able to have a chance at a good education because SOC exists. Many parents didn't even know how much education their kids were missing out on until they actually stepped into another District. Most, if not all, failing Districts in the State were failing before SOC program existed which is why the program was created in the first place. I also believe this accelerated DESEGRATION of schools in this county with several neighboring districts benefiting not only financially, but also culturally with the influx of BH students into their schools.

Mon, 06/24/2019 - 9:56am

Are you even paying attention? How did school of choice help out Eastpointe? All the white students fled to Lakeshore or Lakeview HS (St. Clair). In other communities they have done the same. The Free Press did a whole article on it and here you are acting like it’s solved all the issues and desegregated the schools. That’s why ultra-conservative groups pushed this because deep-down they wanted the public schools to fail by making the poor minority districts collapse and then have those students infiltrate other districts to bring down test scores. Why do you think they attacked Grosse Pointe for being “Fortress Grosse Pointe”? School of Choice has worked the other way too. White families will not keep their students in a system that would be flooded with children that are not there to learn. We did it with our own children and moved them miles away when our local district catered to minority students and then just ignored discipline issues. The fight to do something about it was too much. So we moved them right out. Some districts have gotten “whiter” because of school of choice (or they send them to private schools if they can). But it seems you’re not seeing it or choose to ignore it.

Mon, 06/24/2019 - 11:06am

So to be clear your answer is to force people who can't afford to send their kids to private school to stay in the schools that you don't want your own kids to attend? Why wouldn't you want to ban private schools, or even make it illegal for people to move school district by moving their residences? Sounds like an interesting world all to force people to make their kids sacrificial lambs in hopes that what they think is a bad school will improve. Maybe you're mistaking the primary idea here, which is to get your kid the best education possible, not necessarily to help the local school? Why not do this with colleges and U's too?

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 2:01pm

Disingenuous as ever, Matt. The point is that reactionaries are more interested in building a shiny new money sink to enrich already wealthy charter school investor with no regard for educational outcomes than they are in trying to rebuild/reform existing schools and districts

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 7:52pm

And as usual Bone you never can point specific errors in anyone's words or logic who you disagree with and just degrade into off topic irrelevant and ad hominem spewdom. Come on, can't you do better?

Fri, 06/21/2019 - 12:24pm

The situation in schools like Benton Harbor is the ultimate end-game of the charter and school choice policies. The winners are kids who can relocate to better schools and the losers are those who cannot.
This is no way to educate our children.

Steve Williams
Fri, 06/21/2019 - 10:28am

So not one junior in the last five years was found to be college ready, and it is called a "bold move" to shut it down. I suppose it was a "bold move" to ground the Boeing 737 Max's. Maybe "prudent move" or something similar would be more appropriate.

Sherry A Wells
Fri, 06/21/2019 - 11:36am

Nothing in this article, alas, mentioned the development plan to demolish the high school to expand the riverfront for the wealthy--Grosse Pointe High School, near the Detroit River, had a sailing class for students. Or the charter school that grabbed $1.5 million dollars out of the school district budget--interesting, how mostly, if not only, poor districts have charter schools. Or how TIF (tax increment financing) skims off the higher property taxes after development from schools. Again, I'd like Bridge to examine the "Partnership Agreements" to see where that money is going. Whirlpool is hardly a "partner" to Benton Harbor Schools. It's behind development. I heard it was also behind the destruction of the Benton Harbor Water Dept., which for decades provided the city with a healthy income in exchange for that service. Bridge--you usually do better than this.

Margaret Petersen
Fri, 06/21/2019 - 11:55am

As noted toward the end of the article, I do give the Governor credit for going to Benton Harbor to meet with the community for what was a long and contentious meeting. That takes guts.

Fri, 06/21/2019 - 1:06pm

This is what I would do
·          The State will provide one time K-12 transitional funding in the amount of $500,000

·          The State will provide one time 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

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

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

·          The 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

·          The 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%

Ed Haynor
Fri, 06/21/2019 - 2:40pm

Citizens and state elected leaders must come to their senses on this issue, that the decimation of majority black school districts has at least happened now in Albion, Buena Vista, Detroit, Highland Park, Inkster and Muskegon Heights. Adding another school, Benton Harbor, to this list doesn't solve the problem. Not only are school children devastated because they don’t have a school of their own, so are the communities who lose their schools, since citizen and business property values will further deteriorate.

So, why has this generally happened in black communities and not white communities? Several reasons come to mind have caused this:
* de-industrialization of communities that once had well-paying jobs, with benefits. Without those living wage jobs, many adults have left those areas taking their children with them.
* white flight, where schools of choice and charters have created a re-segregation of some public schools, where people of color live; the Betsy DeVos model.
* The passage of Proposal A in 1994, since school financing is now based on a per pupil headcount, rather than on a school millage. In the millage days, school revenue was based primarily on property values, not a headcount of students. Lose students, lose revenue has not been a good model to sustain public education in Michigan.
* The state in their audacity, certainly not wisdom, have devalued public education and its profession, as well as created a Michigan education model based almost entirely now on student test scores. The state’s, inflict a hostile condition, then punish model, is clearly not working.

Schools and their communities need leadership, resources and restorative assistance from the state. Currently, they are not getting much of either. And many school communities in Michigan don’t have the resources, financial or otherwise, to save themselves, otherwise, they would have done so.

It’s been reported that in 1855 African-American statesman, Frederick Douglas, had a series of dialogues with white slave-owners who could not, or would not, comprehend that slavery was morally wrong and it was during these communications that he wrote, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men“. In our current set of circumstances, just contemplate that.

Mon, 06/24/2019 - 1:10pm

"So, why has this generally happened in black communities and not white communities? Several reasons come to mind have caused this:""
Ed it's funny you never once think or mention the fact that a huge percentage of these kids in these are born to single mothers who send too few of these kids to school with any preparation or sense of discipline or aspiration other than to be a pop music or athletic star, might be a factor too? But don't worry, white communities are catching up fast in this. On the other hand you wonder why Asians in general do so well? Hint: It's not racial, it's a values thing!

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 2:04pm

Claims it isn't about race, then makes it extremely clear it's about race with the loudest dogwhistles ever. Matt, just because you're dumb enough to think your bigotry is subtle, doesn't mean the rest of us are

Tue, 06/25/2019 - 7:59pm

Ah bones I forgot about your mind reading abilities. Kind of like your opinion that all poor people are in capable of making any decisions or actions to better their lives? Just waiting for your Marxist paradise where all decisions will be made for them?

Wed, 06/26/2019 - 5:25pm

Matt, I think you are close on your "values " comment. More accurately it is a cultural issue. The difference is that you develop a set of values over time, but you are born into a culture. And while many outsiders (like us) don't understand the culture of communities like Benton Harbor, its that cultural difference that pulls them together. Sadly, it's also the same cultural difference that has gotten all of these communities into the situation they are in. So why it may look like a racial thing, it really goes deeper than that.

Sat, 06/22/2019 - 4:33am

How will the students of Benton Harbor, who are judged not post secondary ready, react when they are dumped in with other schools’ students who are ready? Will the Benton Harbor students be suddenly at the level of others? Education starts at day one and is a cumulative process. Key times in education occur during early brain development. Until and unless we address this fact, we can close all the poorly performing high schools and it does nothing for the students who are behind in learning.

Chuck Jordan
Sat, 06/22/2019 - 7:38am

The kids of Benton Harbor deserve better. They have been let down and underserved for 40 years, The blame game is not helping anyone.

Truth Sermon
Mon, 06/24/2019 - 2:53pm

Between this misguided proposal out of the blue and her devils deal insurance law thanks to Gilbert and Duggan, she has signed on the dotted line of One-Term Governor status.

Have fun while it lasts, Gretchen.