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

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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