Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Benton Harbor reach tentative deal to save high school

Benton Harbor High School may stay open, now that a tentative deal has been struck between the school board and state officials. (Bridge photo by Ron French)

Update: New Michigan school superintendent: Keep Benton Harbor High open
Update: Gov. Whitmer to Benton Harbor High: Raise scores, balance books or close

State officials and the Benton Harbor School Board reached a tentative agreement to keep the city’s lone, academically struggling high school open, state officials said Wednesday.

The district must see its students improve academically while also paying down $18 million in debt under broad outlines of an agreement announced following a late-afternoon meeting in Lansing between school board members and officials of the office of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the state treasurer’s office.

Details of the agreement weren’t released, but Tiffany Brown, spokesperson for Governor Whitmer, confirmed the agreement would keep the high school open in exchange for Benton Harbor Public Schools agreeing to academic improvement goals and making progress on its debt.

“The State of Michigan’s number one concern has been developing a plan that puts students first and improves outcomes for kids in the Benton Harbor District,” said a statement released by the governor’s office.

According to the governor’s office, state officials have identified national experts with experience turning around school districts who will be brought in to help.

In May, Whitmer and the treasury department released a plan to close Benton Harbor High School, with the students dispersed to 10 nearby traditional and charter high schools. Benton Harbor would be converted to a K-8 district.

If the board didn’t agree to close the high school, Whitmer said in May she would ask the Legislature to dissolve the district completely.

The district has been one of the lowest academically performing districts in the state for years. 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.

Whitmer’s plan to shutter the high school caused an uproar in low-income, African-American majority Benton Harbor, and among many Democrats across the state, including the two African-American members of the State Board of Education.

Both sides toned down rhetoric in the past week as officials looked for a way to save the community’s high school and still provide some assurances of better academic opportunities for students.

According to Brown, of the governor office, the tentative agreement would leave the high school open for the coming school year. The school could still be closed if the district doesn’t show academic improvement.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the tentative agreement included any debt relief for the district. Currently, about $700 of every student’s per-pupil funding, currently about $8,000 per year, goes to debt payments.

An early version of a deal Benton Harbor made to the state included an offer to sell some district-owned property to help relieve some debt.

Any agreement with the state will need to be approved by a vote of the Benton Harbor school board. Benton Harbor School Board Vice President Joseph Taylor declined comment.

Casandra Ulbrich, president of the State Board of Education, said she was pleased that a tentative agreement had been reached.

“I am very encouraged by the progress that has been made on behalf of the students of Benton Harbor,” Ulbrich said. “Today, all sides came together for an open and honest dialogue about the next steps for Benton Harbor schools and demonstrated a real commitment to developing a plan that is future-focused and anchored in student success.”

State Board of Education member Tiffany Tilley said the tentative agreement is a step forward, but the state could still force the school to close down the road. "There is still the question of local control,” Tilley said. “I am concerned about any organizations ability to pivot in just 12 months, and the list of benchmarks could be a lofty goal. I do however applaud Governor Whitmer's willingness to come back to the table with creative ideas, out of the box thinking, and resources." 

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Kevin Grand
Wed, 06/26/2019 - 8:39pm

"According to the governor’s office, state officials have identified national experts with experience turning around school districts who will be brought in to help."

And why were these people not brought in long before if the problem is so dire?

Thu, 06/27/2019 - 1:53pm

How is this different than an emergency manager? I am pretty sure that at some point at least the East Detroit schools had such an expert appointed several years ago. Don't know if that arrangement still exists.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 06/28/2019 - 7:46pm

Since they're holding the Benton Harbor details close to the vest, it's hard to say.

Yes, East Detroit, now Eastpointe, DID have something "close" to an EM brought in to address academics, but they were able to successfully hamstring the state's actions in Macomb County Court about three years ago.

Jensen eventually stepped down about a year later.

James Roberts
Thu, 06/27/2019 - 8:42am

Golly, why am I not surprised the Governor would melt under pressure. Lets give the school another x many years to turn it around and hope we don't have to address the problem under my administration. funny how the hard decisions are left to the other side. I guess that's politics.

Thu, 06/27/2019 - 10:19am

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

·          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

Bob Sornson
Thu, 06/27/2019 - 2:54pm

The governor caved. The Benton Harbor kids will continue to receive third rate education.

Fri, 06/28/2019 - 12:03pm

Why is there the slightest surprise? Her allies are lined up to protect any and all failing PUBLIC schools. Lucky for them they can choose their homes according to the schools they want for their kids so they don't have deal with this. But the experts will save these kids.