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Governor faces residents in tense town hall over Benton Harbor schools

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Governor Whitmer speaks Wednesday at a church in Benton Harbor.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer says leaders at Benton Harbor Area Schools will get an extra week to come up with a plan to keep the district’s high school open. Whitmer took two hours of comments and questions during a town hall with residents in Benton Harbor on Wednesday.

Her administration says the local school district is $18.4 million in debt and it will need to stop operating the high school in the 2020 school year to keep up with its bills.

Residents told the governor that would mean dissolution for the school. 

“No, no it doesn’t,” the governor responded to one parent. “You know what, the only guarantee of dissolution is dissolution. What I’m putting on the table is an alternative to that.”

The governor says she hopes the high school would be able to reopen after a few years.

But there are many doubts in the community, and now the school district will have until June 14 to come up with an alternative plan.

At Wednesday’s town hall, hundreds gathered at Brotherhood of All Nations Church to support the school. A number of high school students spoke directly to the governor.

“I know we are going through tough times just like every other school is, but governor you can’t shut us down,” said sophomore Le’Coreon Travier. “How you going to have a community without a high school? It doesn’t make sense.”

The plan proposed by the state would close the high school for the 2020-2021 school year. The state says students could attend other local schools.

But Benton Harbor High School is a majority black school, and surrounding schools are not. Many parents and community members say they fear how the Benton Harbor students would be treated at other schools, where the students are mostly white.

"This plan is not representative of history, and it's not what the soul of these children need," said attorney Elizabeth McCree.

Elizabeth McCree is an attorney who practices in Benton Harbor. She says she grew up in the city, but went to a private school in a nearby city.

“If I had a dollar for every time I was called a n-----, either at my school or at the surrounding schools as a three-sport varsity athlete, I wouldn’t have my six figures of student loan debt,” she told the governor.

McCree says she graduated high school in 2001, and many of the same problems she faced are still in the area.

“So the idea that they can go to other districts is just absolutely not true,” McCree said. "This plan is not representative of history, and it’s not what the soul of these children need.”

Duane Seats is mayor-pro tem of the city. He says his son recently graduated from another area school, and he echoed McCree’s concerns.

He asked the governor to do more to keep Benton Harbor High School open.

“You said ‘Find the money to fix the roads,’” he told the governor. “And I’m asking you today to find the money to fix Benton Harbor Area Schools.”

Gov. Whitmer says she’s open to considering a plan put forward by the Benton Harbor Area Schools board that would keep the high school open.

The state treasury department has said if there’s no agreement between the state and the school district, the entire district could be forced to dissolve.

On Wednesday, Gov. Whitmer wouldn’t say if her administration is willing to take that step.

“I think that’s a crisis that I hope we don’t confront, frankly,” she said to reporters after the town hall. “The legislature is critical in terms of funding. I don’t have a check book that I alone control in state government. I have to work with the state legislature.”

Benton Harbor Area Schools has until early July to submit its plan. Other members of the community say they’ll continue to speak out to keep the high school open. Benton Harbor’s mayor, Marcus Muhammad, says he plans a press conference and demonstration next week in Lansing.  

Correction: An earlier version of this story reported Benton Harbor would have until early July to propose a plan to save the high school. The extended deadline actually ends on June 14, 2019.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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