Benton Harbor Mayor Takes Fight to Save High School to the State Capitol

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad doubled down today on his bid to keep the state of Michigan from shutting down Benton Harbor High School -- even on a temporary basis. The Mayor took an entourage to the George Romney Building in the heart of the capital city of Lansing to state their case for keeping Gov. Gretchen Whitmer from advancing a plan to shift the Benton Harbor Area School District to a K-8 program, suspending operations at the high school until massive debt can be resolved and academic skills enhanced.

The school district has been under state control of some sort or other for several years and Whitmer escalated plans recently to shift things around to try to bring resolution multiple fronts. She came to the city a week ago to meet with students, parents, teachers, administrators and community leaders, but was not well met as the community protested loudly that her plan is not right, not fair, and should be halted.

Whitmer listened for a couple of hours and left the city with an option to provide an acceptable, "viable," alternative plan by the end of this week -- a one week extension from her original deadline for action.

Today, the Mayor conducted a Lansing press conference on the matter to draw wider attention to the school's plight. He was introduced by David Bullock from the Change Agent Consortium. Here's what Bullock said in introducing Muhammad:

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"My name is David Bullock, Change Agent Consortium. We came to Lansing today to make a statement because we have been fighting for fair and equitable education in Michigan for some time. We did not realize that Gov. Rick Snyder was going to get a third term under the Whitmer administration. We’ve seen the destruction of public education in Highland Park, Michigan…we’ve seen the destruction of public education in Inkster, Michigan…we’ve seen the destruction of public education in Detroit, Michigan…we’ve seen the destruction of public education in Benton Harbor, Michigan. Something seems to suggest that this not just about destroying public education, but it is also about hindering the forward educational progress of African-American students and about promoting the academic and professional advancement and achievement of African-American principals, superintendents, educators and educational policy analysts.

"Our question is this, how can you continue to close schools in urban areas and have a program for economic development and advancement. Inkster is in shambles. No school district. Children standing all over the place. Highland Park, two charter schools, no high school. High school demolished. The community is in shambles. Detroit Public Schools from 125,000 students down to maybe 25,000 students. Still neighborhoods crumbling, because if there is no school, there’s no neighborhood. We come standing in solidarity today. Mayor Marcus Muhammad, the Benton Harbor community, saying Gov. Whitmer should do the right thing. She should keep the school open. But more than that, she should respect that Benton Harbor cannot be the city it’s going to be, without a school system and district that is gone.

"You cannot send black kids to rural school districts and say that is for their own good. I want to introduce our convenor. He has been in the fight for so long, fighting on so many fronts, Mayor Marcus Muhammad, Mayor of the City of Benton Harbor."

The Mayor then stepped up to the mic surrounded by supporters including Mayor Pro Tem Duane Seats and others. Here is what Muhammad said before welcoming several others to the mic and briefly answering a few questions:

"First of all I would just like to thank all of the media outlets for responding to this clarion call for justice, not only for Benton Harbor High School, but what I can see is an elaborate plan that is going to impact -- as Public Act 4 -- the entire state of Michigan, and we’re here today to get in front of it, and appeal to Gov. Whitmer that there is a better way, and that we are not here to be rabble-rousers. We’re not here to be addicts of the media, we are here to seek justice for those that have no voice.

"I can stand here today and say there’s not one parent, there’s not one student, that wants to see Benton Harbor High School Closed down. We just celebrated our 144th Commencement. Benton Harbor High School is one of the oldest high schools in the state of Michigan. Our history and our legacy is very rich. In the 170 days of the Whitmer administration, we’ve been told that 144 years is going to be thrown down the drain.

"The city of Benton Harbor is surrounded by three bodies of water. The Paw Paw River, the St. Joe River, and Lake Michigan, and at this current time there are plans to develop the $350-million dollars of riverfront property, on 625 acres, where 40 acres – which is what the high school is – overlooks it. So many are asking, ‘Why now?’

"Benton Harbor also has 175 acres of farm land that sits right adjacent to Michigan State University’s Agricultural Extension School. So there’s an undercurrent some have called a 'land grab,' but Benton Harbor High School is the gorilla in the room, and it’s standing in the way of...some say multi, multi, multi-millions of dollars of development.

"With that being said, the children are standing in the way…the parents are standing in the way….and the idea of the children being shipped off, shipped out, treated like refugees, I was told by one staff member, ‘Well, dollars go with every head.’ My question to them is, ‘Is this about a head count, or is this about education?’ The narrative has changed from financial to educational, to…there are problems, but we’re asking allow us to solve our problems. Don’t come in with a sledge hammer, come in with an open hand to support the district. The only black district in the entirety of Berrien County and the only one being shut down? How do you explain that?

"I likened it to what would it be to Ann Arbor to shut down the University of Michigan? How would it impact that city? Economically. Socially. Politically. In every spectrum of life. What about the alma mater of Gov. Whitmer, Michigan State? What would East Lansing be without the Michigan State Spartans? Well that’s what would happen, and that’s what that means to the city of Benton Harbor.

"I just want to make an announcement, as Dr. King talked about economic withdrawal, and redistributing the pain…if there’s no support for Benton Harbor High School in the city of Benton Harbor, then there’s no support for all the development. So if Benton Harbor High School is going to be scrapped and put to the side, then all developments, will be put on the table. It will come to a screeching halt! If you think that’s a threat, it’s not a threat. We’re backed by an entire 10,000. We just represent them today."

Other speakers took to the mic and a short while later the 30-minute press conference ended. Tomorrow, the Benton Harbor School Board is scheduled to meet with Gov. Whitmer in Lansing to discuss a proposed alternative plan to help keep Benton Harbor High School open. Stay tuned.

The photo accompanying this story on Moody on the Market is a screen shot from a Facebook live video of the conference as it was being broadcast today by South Bend TV station ABC 57.