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As deadline passes, Benton Harbor and state negotiate fate of high school

Update: New Michigan school superintendent: Keep Benton Harbor High open
Update: Gov. Whitmer to Benton Harbor High: Raise scores, balance books or close
Update: Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Benton Harbor reach tentative deal to save high school

The Benton Harbor School Board ignored Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Friday deadline to approve the closure of the city’s struggling high school, potentially setting the stage for a bigger battle to dissolve the entire school district.

While not reaching an agreement, both sides ratcheted down the rhetoric over the high school closure Friday, raising hope that the state, concerned about high debt and low academic achievement, and a West Michigan community fighting to preserve its one high school, can find common ground.

Whitmer had given the board until Friday to accept a plan to close the low-performing high school and convert to a K-8 district. With the board taking no action at a Friday meeting, it appeared that the district was barreling toward a political cliff. Whitmer had threatened to start actions to close the entire district if the board didn’t agree to close the high school.

The school board and state officials met in Lansing Wednesday to try to resolve the dispute. The board presented the governor with an alternative plan that they said would raise academic achievement and lower the district’s $18 million debt.

Joseph Taylor, vice president of the Benton Harbor School Board, has been outspoken in his criticism of Whitmer for recommending the closure of the city’s only high school. After Friday’s school board meeting, though, Taylor offered muted remarks, saying only that “we’ll wait to see what the governor’s office says.”

The governor’s office released an equally measured statement after the school board appeared set to blow past Whitmer’s deadline:

“Gov. Whitmer, Lt. Gov. (Garlin) Gilchrist, and Treasurer (Racheal) Eubanks have spent the past few weeks listening to Benton Harbor school board members, community leaders, students, and parents to hear their thoughts and ideas. The governor’s number one priority is putting students first and making sure every child in Benton Harbor has a path to postsecondary success.

“The state is currently reviewing the plan that the Benton Harbor school board put on the table this week, and 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.”

Neither the governor’s office nor the school board released the school board’s alternative plan for the troubled district. Michigan Radio tweeted a photo of an “open letter” from the board to Whitmer released June 10 that may offer clues to the board’s alternative plan for the troubled district.

The letter calls for the high school to remain open and continue to be part of Benton Harbor Area Schools, and for the state to help pay down the district’s debt. The district offered to sell vacant school buildings and property, establish a balanced budget for the 2019-20 school year, and create individualized educational plans for all high schoolers.

The letter also said the district would offer retention and merit bonuses for teachers who meet student performance targets.

Along with its high debt, Benton Harbor schools have some of the lowest academic achievement in the state. Consider:

  • Just 3 percent of Benton Harbor third-graders scored proficient or higher in English Language Arts on the M-STEP, the state’s standardized test, in 2017-18. The state rate was 44 percent.

  • Just 1 percent of 8th graders were proficient in math, compared to 33 percent statewide.

  • An analysis by Bridge Magazine and Stanford University found that Benton Harbor had the lowest achievement among eighth-graders in Michigan, with the typical eighth-grader testing at a level below that of a fifth-grader.

  • Six out of 10 Benton Harbor students are chronically absent, more than triple the statewide average.

  • The high school’s graduation rate was 66 percent in 2017 compared to 81 percent statewide.

  • And among 2011-12 graduates, just 6 percent went on to earn an associate’s degree or higher six years after getting their Benton Harbor diploma. That’s one-sixth the state rate.

Whitmer’s plan was to close the high school and allow students to enroll at one of at least 10 area traditional and charter schools. Transportation would be provided to all of the schools. It was hoped that without a high school, which costs more per pupil to operate, the district could focus its efforts and money on improving academic performance in earlier grades.

That plan was met with outrage in the low-income, majority-black community, where about 95 percent of voters cast ballots for Whitmer in 2018.

If an agreement isn’t reached and the district continues to refuse to close the high school, Whitmer could follow through on her threat to try to dissolve the 1,900-student district. In 2013, the Legislature passed a law that allowed for the closure of Buena Vista Public Schools in Saginaw County and Inkster Public Schools in Wayne County. That law, or an amended version of that law, could be used to dissolve Benton Harbor.

Last week, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said he supported the Democratic governor’s plan to close the high school. “The alternative is dissolution.” Shirkey said. “While we acknowledge that as an option, we are hopeful the local school board will support the state's plan and do the right thing for the students and families of Benton Harbor.”

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