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ACLU of Michigan says it has concerns over state's plans for Benton Harbor schools

Benton Harbor High School
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbor High School is one of nearly 100 schools on the list of the Michigan's "lowest achieveing schools" for 2011.

The ACLU of Michigan is asking Governor Gretchen Whitmer to let local leaders in Benton Harbor decide what happens in their schools.

The ACLU delivered that message in the form of a letter to the governor’s office on Friday.

The governor’s office says the Benton Harbor Area Schools district is $18.4 million in debt. Whitmer’s administration proposed closing the high school to help pay down the debt. Local leaders oppose that plan. The two sides are still trying to come up with an alternative plan they can both agree on.

“In recent weeks we have spoken with Benton Harbor residents and activists with whom we have had both long-term and recent acquaintance ,” wrote Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s Racial Justice Project. “Based on those discussions as well as our overall experience with education issues and previous administrations' use of emergency managers, we strongly urge against any inclination to revive the idea of unilaterally closing the high school, or to resort to state control of the school district in some other form.”

You can read the full letter from the ACLU of Michigan here.

In a phone interview with Michigan Radio, Fancher said state-imposed plans for school districts “cut against the democratic rights of a community.”

“And when you’re talking about a community that is predominantly black and predominantly poor, it takes on even more concerning implications,” Fancher said.

The governor’s office says it’s plan was just one proposal, and the state continues to work with the school district.

“The governor has attempted to work with the board, the community, and local leaders to find a solution that is best for the BHAS students,” says Tiffany Brown, a spokesperson for the governor’s office.

The BHAS Board of Education has submitted a counterproposal to the governor’s office to turn the district around.

“Discussions are ongoing and we look forward to working with the board on a solution that is in the best interest of BHAS students,” Brown says.

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.