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State backs off plan for Benton Harbor schools, and proposes a new approach

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Benton Harbor High School

Less than three months ago, Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration made an announcement that stunned the community in Benton Harbor.

The city’s school district was in a financial and academic crisis, the state Department of Treasury said. The district was $18.4 million in debt. Governor Whitmer said the district would have to close Benton Harbor High School for the 2020-21 school year.

“If the School Board chooses not to pursue this option, state law dictates that either the entire district will dissolve or be converted into a charter school system,” the Department of Treasury wrote in an online FAQ about the plan.

The district chose not to pursue the option.

In a series of tense and passionate community meetings, people in Benton Harbor overwhelmingly opposed the state’s plan. The local school board stood unanimously against it.

Credit Dustin Dwyer / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
State Treasurer Rachael Eubanks, left, and deputy treasurer Joyce Parker at a meeting of the Benton Harbor Area Schools board.

And Friday night, the state backed off.

“We heard from the community that the community wanted an approach that involved everybody,” state Treasurer Rachael Eubanks said at a special meeting of the Benton Harbor Area Schools board.  

Now, the state has a new proposal. It wants the school board to create an advisory committee, which includes representatives from the Michigan Department of Treasury and Michigan Department of Education, as well as members of the local community to assess the current status of the district and come up with a new turnaround plan in time for the 2020-21 school year.

“Taking this approach, you should expect an open, transparent process,” said Deputy Treasurer Joyce Parker.

She said the advisory committee would meet regularly with people in the community, and post information online about its activities.

Dozens of people gathered to hear the presentation and ask questions.

“Our church community is behind a solution, and not just camouflage, something just to appease us for a moment and eventually shut our schools down,” said Rodney Gulley, of the Southwest Michigan Ministerial Alliance. “So my question is:  is the objective of this meeting to save us, or just to buy time?"

"If we're able to have the model work in Benton Harbor, it's a model that can work in other school districts," says deputy state treasurer Joyce Parker.

“We want to see a better district, K through 12, here in Benton Harbor,” responded Parker. She said the goal of the advisory committee would be to come up with a long term plan for the district.

“As far as buying time, that’s not why we’re here,” Parker said. “If we’re able to have the model work in Benton Harbor, it’s a model that can work in other school districts.”

The state officials asked school board members to consider a resolution at their next meeting in September to create the advisory committee.

Board vice president Joseph Taylor said he’s open to the idea.

“This is the best idea I’ve heard so far because it throws all ideas out the window,” Taylor said. “And it’s now saying to our shareholders and our stakeholders that we all should be involved in this process."

Board members said they’ll consider community input before deciding whether to move forward with the advisory committee. 

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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