New Michigan school superintendent: Keep Benton Harbor High open

Benton Harbor High School gained a high-ranking ally Thursday, when state superintendent Michael Rice said the school should not be closed.

Benton Harbor High School gained a high-ranking ally Thursday, when State Superintendent Michael Rice said the school should not be closed.

Newly minted Michigan schools superintendent Michael Rice says the state should not close Benton Harbor High School.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the school will remain open, but his statement to Bridge on Thursday appeared to be a crack in state officials’ previously unanimous public stance that the troubled school might have to shut down.

In an interview in his office on his seventh day on the job, Rice minced no words in expressing his position on the controversy.

When asked if the high school should close, Rice answered with one word:


“We, collectively in the state, need to figure out how to stabilize Benton Harbor’s finances, and academics such that that [closing] is not necessary,” said Rice, the former superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools. 

Having the state’s highest ranking school official come out against the closure could put more pressure on officials in the governor’s office and the Treasury Department to find a way to keep the high school open, despite its dismal academic record and ballooning debt.

Rice’s stance also is significant because it undercuts one avenue the state could use to dissolve the school district (which Whitmer threatened to do if the Benton Harbor school board didn’t agree to shutter the high school). The state treasurer and the state superintendent can agree to close a school district if certain metrics are met. If Rice is a firm no on closure, that avenue is closed.

Related: Gov. Whitmer to Benton Harbor High: Raise scores, balance books or close
Related: Michigan’s next superintendent led gains in Kalamazoo, fought GOP policies​

Tiffany Brown, spokeswoman for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, declined to comment, but reiterated the office’s stance since the controversy erupted: “The proposals the state put forward have been focused on keeping the district open and turning around academics.”

Joseph Taylor, vice president of the Benton Harbor school board, welcomed Rice’s support for the high school, and said it may help turn the tide to keep the district open. 

“He’s a major decision-maker. You can’t make any kind of compact [between the state and Benton Harbor] without MDE,” Taylor said.

As state superintendent, Rice is the head of the Michigan Department of Education.

In May, Whitmer proposed that Benton Harbor’s sole high school be shuttered in response to chronic low academic performance and a district debt that had reached $18 million. Her proposal caused a firestorm in the low-income, majority black community. The Benton Harbor Area Schools board and the state have traded proposals this summer in an attempt to reach an agreement that could lead to improved academic success for students.

Benton Harbor schools have struggled for years. The district owes the state more than $18 million and is unable to borrow more from the state.

The district is also among the lowest performing academic districts in the state.

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. Six in 10 Benton Harbor students are chronically absent, triple the state average.

“This is an academic emergency,” said a spokesperson for the governor's office in June, who talked to Bridge on condition they not be named. “The governor is thinking what is in the best interests of these students, right now.”

Officials from the governor’s office and the Department of Treasury originally proposed closing the high school and converting the district to a K-8 district. High-schoolers would be dispersed to surrounding school districts and charters.

Later, they recommended the school district sign an agreement that would allow the high school to remain open, but only if it met specific academic growth goals in one year. The Benton Harbor board rejected that offer, and countered with a proposal giving the district at least four years to improve scores.

Currently, the Treasury Department is analyzing a proposal given to the state by Benton Harbor.

“There's going to be conversation around finances, and that's the province of Treasury,” Rice said “And I'm not trying to force myself into that world. That being said, there's an academic component to it and I will be involved in the academic component of it.

“As you can, I have strong feelings about the importance of community, and about the importance of the strength of the community relative to its public schools…. A high school is the center of a community.”

Rice said the state must “exhaust all other options before we consider what you refer to [closing the high school].”

As state superintendent, Rice is independent from the Democratic governor’s office. Rice was appointed to his position by the State Board of Education, which has eight members who are elected in statewide elections. Currently, the state board has a 6-2 Democratic majority.

Board president Casandra Ulbrich declined to comment on Rice’s statement.

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Tom Stillings
Fri, 08/09/2019 - 9:20am

The note accompanying the article, apparently written by a high school student speaks volumes. The spelling and vocabulary are far below what one would expect of a high school student. The question asked (What other high school gonna accept us?) is a sad acknowledgement. That particular student obviously recognizes how horribly she, as a student, has been shortchanged.
My question now becomes, “if that student, and probably many others like her can see the outcome of previous incompetence, why do the parents who vote for school board, not see it as well?” Could it be that the problem is so longstanding that the parents were victims of this same travesty as well?
This may sound uncaring, but it is truly not. To me, the teachers and administrators, etc. are unimportant. These students must be served. They deserve the same education as they would receive in a competent school district. Further delay in remediation only serves to cheat these students out of the future that will be available to those students attending school elsewhere.
The governor and I probably don’t agree on very much. We do agree on this much. Put an end to this farce. Put these students into schools that can and will educate them properly. Afford them the opportunity to go out into the world on equal footing with their competition. Every day of delay is one day too many. Make the first day of the coming school year the last day for Benton Harbor High. End this process that has stolen the future opportunities of so many.

Barry Stern
Thu, 08/15/2019 - 5:22pm

I agree with Tom Stillings. Every day the state waits to give these students a shot at a decent life is a crime of negligence. Dusting off my op-ed to the Detroit News on Valentine’s Day, 2007, "Give state’s high schools a makeover," I proposed:
“Put regional industry-led boards in charge of high schools instead of the currently elected lay boards. Split off high schools from the rest of the school system and link them to community colleges and the regional business community.
Such a governance change would facilitate student transitions to college or work and enable many more high school students to concurrently enroll in a community college…
…the status quo would continue to result in Michigan employers with skilled jobs that go begging… It's time to give control of high schools to those whose very survival depends on the quality of the work force and their ability to keep jobs in the United States.”

Were such a change to be implemented in the entire state, it would likely require altering the state constitution. To get underway, however, why not frame and fund it as a legislatively authorized state experiment to be tried in Benton Harbor and 2-3 other struggling high schools. Little to lose. For such schools, let the home communities decide what the purpose of a high school education should be—for example, “to help students discover and follow their passions AND to learn enough of the basics in different domains that they can earn a living, lead a family, maintain and improve their health, participate in civic life, appreciate and enjoy what the world has to offer and contribute to the prosperity and happiness of others?”

By all means, have standards, but don’t obsess on them since there is little evidence that improved standards improves performance, all else held constant. Instead, help each student understand where they are in relation to where they need to be in order to achieve success in a career and life of their choice. Then work with the student to come up with that compelling vision of success and achieve the milestones leading to its realization.

Paul Jordan
Fri, 08/09/2019 - 12:57pm

From the Engler administration onwards, the legislature has assumed more and more power over Michigan's public education system. This accumulation of power has come at the expense of the authority that the People of Michigan (through the state constitution) grant to the state Board of Education and the state Superintendent of Schools.
It would be major step forward for the children of Michigan for the Board of Ed to challenge the legislature's assumption of power in the courts when an opportunity arises.
Sun, 08/11/2019 - 5:56pm

Just a suggestion here: Why not close the pre-K-6/8 schools? That's where they're not learning to read, etc.