As Governor Invites BHAS Board to Lansing, Whirlpool Shares Letter on the Matter

While indications are that Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has invited the Benton Harbor Area School Board to meet up with her in Lansing on Wednesday, an internal letter shared with the employees of Whirlpool regarding the schools has been shared in a Facebook post.

The Herald Palladium reports that a letter to the school board is inviting them to the state capitol to discuss the future of Benton Harbor High School, saying in part, “We look forward to continue working through the process to identify a solution that puts kids first.” She also reminds the community, “Doing nothing is not an option.”

Meanwhile, Whirlpool Corporate Vice President of Communications & Public Affairs, D. Jeffery Noel, responded to a post on the Facebook page, “Friends of the Mayor of Benton Harbor,” wherein he shares a letter which he had previously shared with Whirlpool employees at the end of May.

We are sharing that post here, to shed light on what Whirlpool has to say on the issue of the school system at this time.

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Here is what Noel posted on that site:

In reference to the Facebook posting, here is a letter I shared with Whirlpool employees on May 30, 2019 about the Benton Harbor schools. We have not been silent, only respectful. 

Whirlpool 360 Posting

May 30, 2019

One of the things I am most proud of in working at Whirlpool Corporation is how much this company does to support worthwhile local causes and be a part of the community. The number of employees and full-time contractors at Whirlpool makes up just about 5% of the total workforce in Berrien County, the area where the majority of our employees reside and whose children attend any one of the 14 public school systems and numerous other private and charter schools.

The local and regional news recently has been full of coverage about the Benton Harbor Area School System (BHAS), an important part of the overall fabric of our collective set of communities within Berrien County. I believe like countless other local business leaders, churches, not for profits and thousands of area residents, that we share a common concern for the children who attend the BHAS and have a mutual desire to see each and every student have the best opportunities available for them to succeed.

I can think of numerous examples of young people who have graduated from the Benton Harbor Area Schools and have been successful. Hopefully, there will be many more of those stories in the future, yet the data of the overall school performance in recent times paints a startling portrait of why that may not be so realistic. According to the state of Michigan, “in 2018, only three percent of Benton Harbor Area Schools third-graders could read at grade level, and zero eleventh graders were deemed college-ready each of the last five years. The district is more than $16 million in debt, with $700 per student being spent to pay back debt every year.”

As reported in the media, the State of Michigan has proposed a plan that would expand opportunities for Benton Harbor students from Kindergarten through Eighth grade and suspend operations at the high school and alternative high school. Under this plan, starting in the 2020-2021 school year, high school students would be able to attend one of eight local high schools in their area or get a Career & Technical Education and earn college credits in partnership with Lake Michigan College.

Community reaction to the proposal has been mixed and the BHAS board issued a letter to Michigan Governor Whitmer challenging the plan. Based upon inaccurate information presented in recent print and online media, we feel we need to provide our employees with the Whirlpool’s position on this matter:

Whirlpool is not endorsing one plan or the other

Given the realities of the school system, we encourage the leadership of the local school and the state to communicate and work together to bring about the changes needed for the betterment of the students.

Whirlpool Corporation is not an educator, nor do we profess to be experts in public education. We can only be observers in this matter.

All focus should be on doing what is right for the students within the BHAS.

Leaders should articulate not just a clear vision for the future of the Benton Harbor Area Schools, but also clear and measurable milestones

Community and business organizations should be supportive where possible once a plan has been established.

In response to some of the concerns we have raised, it’s important for our employees to understand the facts. For example:

An elected official has made a statement that Whirlpool has “directed the Governor to shut down the BHAS.”

FACT: Our company has at no time had conversations with the Governor or her staff encouraging or directing her to shut down the BHAS.

We have received calls from concerned local citizens that have heard that Whirlpool is interested in, or behind an effort to buy the site of the Benton Harbor High School for “waterfront development.”

FACT: We have no interest in the property whatsoever, other than to be a viable asset for educating the youth in our community.

Some have suggested Whirlpool pay off the school debts.

FACT: It would be unacceptable for a public company owned by shareholders to “pay off the $16 million debt” of the BHAS.

Is Whirlpool doing anything?

FACT: We have met with community leaders and offered to assist them in gathering actionable data that could improve the opportunities for all students.

The challenges within the BHAS have not been created overnight and we as a region will all benefit greatly by a thoughtful and appropriate set of plans to assure a great education for all youth in the community. Charting the right course and implementing the actions needed for any school to succeed begins with leadership. The accountable entities that must grapple with this difficult topic are the state of Michigan, the BHAS Board, the teachers and residents of the Benton Harbor school district. The role of the broader community, including Whirlpool, is to continue to support mentoring programs, robotics, athletics, after school programming and post-secondary scholarships for students within a clear school framework established by accountable school leaders.

There is an old saying by Margaret Wheatley that states “There is no power for change greater than a community discovering what it cares most about.” I’m convinced all of us easily agree that every young person deserves the very best education and opportunities to be successful in life, and the path for achieving just that should unify our community around a common cause.

Regards

D. Jeffrey Noel, Corporate Vice President, Communications & Public Affairs