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

Friday was supposed to be the day Benton Harbor leaned the fate of its high school. If the high school does close, its students would be sent to one of 10 schools in surrounding communities.


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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Fri, 06/14/2019 - 9:55pm

So when these vile charter schools, Bridge commentors go on and on about , fail their kids they lose their students and are forced to shut down. Fine and dandy. Now all these fine Progressives when faced with a Public unionized school likewise failing these ,folks turn on a dime and rally to keep the place open. What gives? Don't they care about the kids??

Sat, 06/15/2019 - 5:19pm

When a school district has an extraordinary number of teachers that are not fully qualified and 6 out of 10 students are chronically absent, you have a two pronged recipe for disaster. That has nothing to do with charter schools that have been, generally, documented to be no better than traditional public schools with similar populations. Nor does it have anything to do with unionization. The last time I looked, a long while ago, schools that were unionized did better than non-unionized schools, generally in the south. \
Until something is done to improve conditions in the school itself and there is a commitment to address conditions in the community, particularly the parents that affect educational outcomes enormously, nothing will change.

Finally Matt, your implication that citizens, that disagree with your solution, don't care about kids, is narrowly minded leaves much to be desired.
Let's try an emergency manager again. An earlier proposal of your people on the right. that worked out well in Flint and schools, didn't it! I'd like to remind you that this country, in part because of great schools, led the world in just about everything. Did the citizens that brought that circumstance about ( without your essential guidance ) also not care about kids?

Sat, 06/15/2019 - 7:04pm

Union, non-union really doesn't matter in Michigan teachers. You just need qualified teachers who are dedicated to work with these students. Let's face it, any teacher who is still in BH is there because they want to be there. And that's the only way this District stands a chance to survive, lead by people who want to be there and and are qualified to be there, not appointed by the Govenor (emergency manager) , and not elected to office (school board) by people that haven't shown an interest in their kids education until now when they are at risk of losing a major part of the community structure. The sup't they just lost was one of those people who appeared to be a strong educational leader, but saw the hand writing on the wall now that the Board was going to be coming back in control and headed East where his talents will be put to use there. Change has to start at the top before it can happen anywhere else in BH. This Board thinks they are the solution, but it is obvious they are the biggest problem. Yes, there are other problems in BH like poverty, single parent homes, racial distrust, etc. Those things can't be solved overnight, but putting people in charge who are qualified is at least an attainable goal the state should be looking at.

Sun, 06/16/2019 - 7:48pm

So it is just a coincidence that the "progressive " Left, which has the MEA as a major constituent, is abhorrent of parental choice (other than public schools), and leads the parade to close any school (charter) that fails in the left's definition, now says we should disregard BHPS's failure (by its definition) and listen to the parents and keep these schools open? As someone who's agnostic when it concerns schools and would rather rely on the parent's and student's estimation of what meets their needs as to their abilities, relevancy and aspirations, as opposed to the State B of Ed's prescribed model, I can't avoid the blast of hypocrisy here.
Your mention of the Emergency manager is interesting and illustrative of this same thinking and problem. What started as the Emergency FINANCIAL Manager, whose duties were to balance income and expenditures and keep that entity's debts from being dumped on the state tax payers evolved into an all encompassing EMERGENCY Manager. The new directive being to somehow save a dying city or make a problem school district's kids turn 180 degrees as if there was a magic button to push or lever to pull. This is why we ended up with an EM in Flint acting as a incompetent LT infrastructure/utility manager for a dying city with a dwindling population and doomed from the start.

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 8:41am

Charter schools are a scam meant to defraud the state and students for the benefit of already wealthy owners and investors. The 'free market' fails at education, just as it fails in healthcare

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 3:42pm

Since you think healthcare is any kind of market, free or other wise, you clearly don't understand what a market even is. Also Funny that private schools in post secondary ed seem to stack up pretty well.

Ed Haynor
Tue, 06/18/2019 - 11:51am

A point you fail to recognize between shutting down charters versus shutting down traditional public schools is that charters schools are most generally existing once private buildings/storefronts now being used for a school, where the public had no long-term investment in. A traditional public school has had decades of taxpayer investments in their buildings of many, many millions of dollars. It’s just not a wise investment to shut a public institution down, where millions of dollars have been invested in brick and mortar as well as a community's children, that’s been a pillar of our democracy as well as the heart of our communities.

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 3:44pm

Ed you missed the point. If the parents and kids want to continue attending this is their option. Neither I nor you or any others know their kids well enough to say otherwise.

Ed Haynor
Tue, 06/18/2019 - 5:09pm

No, actually you evaded the issue, since you didn't even address my point regarding the millions of taxpayer dollars invested in traditional community schools, which is not generally the case with charters. Why suggest kids in Benton Harbor can attend their school as you suggest, if their school is closed?

Wed, 06/19/2019 - 8:42am

Ed: So your point is that because the public has sunk untold amounts of money in the public schools, they shouldn't be shut down when they fail. But charters should be closed, because they didn't build enough sports facilities and performing arts centers? This is the fallacy of sunk costs and sounds like an incentive to spend as much money as possible to build job security. Education becomes secondary to building facilities and getting BIG. Again whether BHS (or Noah's Ark charter, stays open or not, shouldn't be our issue as long as parents aren't forced there by accident of their address and have other options. The best thing the state could do is provide a framework(s) for parents to evaluate their kid's educational attainment (s) and leave it at that.

Jennifer G
Fri, 06/14/2019 - 10:20pm

I think everyone following this story as well as those involved in it - the Govenors office, the local school board, students, parents - all realize that both sides have valid points and both have valid reasons for standing their ground. The State doesn't want nor need the headache of running a school district- that's not their function or their expertise. They also have a responsibility to the rest of the taxpayers in the State to use tax dollars wisely and not throw more money at a District that has proven repeatedly it can't manage what they have. The neighboring school districts, while in agreement that they will do to what is needed to help the BH students if the decision is made to disband or dissolve, really don't want, and in some cases can't absorb, these students. The local voted-in school board is not capable of running the District either and have proven that over and over again for the past few decades. With the introduction of schools of choice in Michigan, this Board and previous Boards and Administrations have failed to realize that schools are not only an educational facility, they are also a business. Right or wrong, good or bad, that's just the fact of schools in Michigan when you compete for the dollars that each student carries with them. It can't be business as usual for schools if they expect to survive, something this Board has never acknowledged. And do you know what is harder than maintaining a failing business? Trying to build it back up from the brink of disaster!

These Benton Harbor kids are not failures, they are a product of a community, school, and family structure that has failed. The students aren't the ones that need to be moved or displaced, it's the adults in charge of this disaster that need to face reality and shoulder the majority of the blame and and step aside for the common good. A State appointed manager didn't work, a local voted-in Board hasn't and won't work, and moving 1,900 kids to places they don't want to be and in many cases aren't wanted surely isn't the answer. For this to have a successful, long term outcome, each side has to have buy-in to whatever is decided and be willing to swallow their pride and agree publicaly with someone else who makes sense and presents reasonable solutions no matter their race, social or political position, or any other label we want throw out there.

Nancy Hanover
Sat, 06/15/2019 - 4:48pm

Democratic Governor Whitner and the State of Michigan are utilizing Benton Harbor’s accumulated $18 million debt to blackmail the district, saying that it would eliminate $12 million of the debt only if the district acceded to the demand for closure -- meanwhile the state's School Aid Fund is regularly looted by legislators who far prefer tax giveaways to big business. There is plenty of money -- but it sits in the bank accounts of Whirlpool, General Motors, Lear, etc. The schools in the state have been systematically looted; Michigan educators make 12% less than a decade ago and kids suffer. Read the world socialist web site.

Sat, 06/15/2019 - 9:09pm

Do you believe there is connection between the decline in teacher salaries and the decline in student outcomes in Michigan for all students?

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 3:47pm

Wallethub says Michigan has the highest paid teachers in the nation verse the MI cost of living. Maybe teacher pay isn;t the problem?

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 5:49pm

A lot of teachers are stuck in a low pay range due to the nature of their work contract, it makes it rather discouraging when you reach a ceiling and can't go any higher.

Ed Haynor
Tue, 06/18/2019 - 5:59pm

Some might suggest you're a phony, as in "fake news." The only site I could find regarding your Wallethub comment, was at, which says "Michigan is 12th best state for teachers, study says."

At, it says Michigan rates as the 22nd best State for Teachers.

At, it says that Michigan ranks 31st in States with the Worst School Systems. Of course, some might suggest that Wallehub, itself, is a dubious website, since how could a state be 22nd best State for Teachers and be the 31st in States with the Worst School Systems.

If you’re going to site findings, please in the future post your website findings, so others can confirm.