BH Area Schools Board Demands Reconsideration of High School Shutdown

As was expected, the Benton Harbor Area Schools Board is expressing zero tolerance of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's plan to shutdown the Benton Harbor High School and relocate students to other area districts.

The Board has issued a press release today including a letter to the Governor demanding reconsideration of her proposed plans.

They tell us that on Tuesday June 4th, 2019 at 6pm the School Board will hold the first of several Open Public Meetings at the High School Public Commons to discuss the future of Benton Harbor High School and the entire K-12 school district. They are strongly urging students, families, teachers, and community members to participate.

The Board says, "We are urgently requesting that Governor Gretchen Whitmer appear in person at our June 4 Public Meeting – and fulfill 3 of her campaign promises: to support public schools, especially in high-poverty communities, to fight urban poverty, and to hold government accountable."

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They also refer the public to Whitmer’s campaign website: https://www.gretchenwhitmer.com/issues/.

The board also says, "Attached is the Board’s Open Letter to Michigan Governor Whitmer. We respectfully request that all news media PRINT OUR ENTIRE LETTER TO WHITMER – and display on your website. As has been widely covered in the media over the past few days, Governor Whitmer’s Office, Michigan Treasury, and parts of the Michigan Department of Education have proposed a unilateral plan to close Benton Harbor High School in 2020 with re-distribution of BHAS high school students to a proposed charter school under Lake Michigan College and nine other local school districts."

They then point to "Parts of the story not reported in the media:"

  • Governors Office and Michigan Treasury did NOT consult the elected Trustees of the Benton Harbor Board members prior to their unilateral decision. The two BHAS Board members who were briefed in the State Capital Lansing on Friday 5/24/19 were told by the Governors Office staff that this decision to exclude the elected Benton Harbor Board was intentional.
  • Likewise, on 5/23/19, the elected state-wide Trustees of the Michigan Department of Education were informed that the Governor’s Office had also excluded them from giving input into the fate of Benton Harbor High School.
  • On 5/24/19, the Governors Office informed the two Benton Harbor Board members attending the Lansing meeting that the Governors Office had not held an open public meeting for community input – and did not plan to do so. Instead, the Governors Office met with undisclosed community members that the Governor felt were “representative.”
  • The BHAS Board were told that the Governors Draft Plan is a “Yes – or – No Decision with no opportunity for negotiation.” BHAS Board was told it must decide by close of business Friday June 7 to accept the Plan or risk that the State may elect to dissolve the entire Benton Harbor Areas Schools district at any time.

"This one-sided decision-making by Michigan State officials is unacceptable. We, the Benton Harbor Area Schools Board are going to hold our State government accountable."

In April 2019, the BHAS Board unanimously voted to support the Fresh Start Resolution petitioning the State of Michigan to reexamine public school accountability and finance systems, calling for a system of improvement strategies developed collaboratively by all stakeholders – to ensure all students and teachers have a voice and receive the opportunities and support they deserve.

The board contends that the state bears direct responsibility for a significant portion of the BHAS debt, and argues, "The legacy of this debt should be transparently reviewed and addressed – but the High School cannot be held hostage for the State to agree to debt forgiveness."

Their message concludes: "The fate of the Benton Harbor High School and the entire School District requires careful planning by all involved parties – especially the opportunity of full community input plus input from both the state and local School Board Trustees who were duly elected by the community to represent them."

Here is the full letter from the board to the governor:

OPEN LETTER TO MICHIGAN GOVERNOR GRETCHEN WHITMER FROM THE ELECTED SCHOOL BOARD OF BENTON HARBOR AREA SCHOOLS, BENTON HARBOR, MICHIGAN.

Dear Governor Whitmer –

We respectfully and urgently request that you visit Benton Harbor in person to meet in an Open Public Meeting with the community and the elected School Board trustees regarding the future of Benton Harbor High School and the K-12 District as a whole.

The School Board is hosting an Open Public Meeting at the Benton Harbor High School Student Commons on Tuesday June 4 at 6pm. We would love to host you and let you hear the full story.

Hopefully you are aware that representatives from your office, Treasury and the Department of Education are claiming that, on your behalf, a unilateral decision has been made to close Benton Harbor High School in 2020. The Board was told by your representatives that a decision was made by your office to intentionally exclude the elected School Board trustees and exclude open community input from the decision-making process. Honestly, we are completely shocked and dismayed by this action. Our Board has been working in good faith with both Treasury and Education to address issues at BHAS including an outline for a new Strategic Plan, submitted to Treasury, but upon which your departments have taken no action.

We also want to openly confront the many “elephants in the room” that neither your staff nor the news media have addressed:

  • The land upon which the Benton Harbor High School sits with its athletic fields and adjacent School Board properties are the LAST MAJOR UNDEVELOPED WATERFRONT PROPERTIES in Berrien County, Michigan. Is this just a coincidence, given that your office just told our Board representatives on 5/24/19 that your plan to close Benton Harbor High School has major (but unnamed) supporters in the nearby business community?
  • The Draft Plan from your office is explicitly a transfer of wealth from an overwhelmingly poor and black community (Benton Harbor) to nearby white, more affluent communities. Under your Plan, that transfer of wealth will occur through the loss by Benton Harbor of its school facilities and use of school land, transfer of state funding from Benton Harbor to the adjacent nine school districts where you plan Benton Harbor students to be redistributed, and loss of jobs for local teachers and staff of all levels.
  • The contention by representatives of your office that hiring a single staff person to act as a “Cultural Dean” to smooth over “discomfort” that the displaced 700 black students might feel when transported out of their community to predominantly white schools is an appalling insult to our youth and the community. Such insensitivity to the painful history of racial segregation, unsuccessful past desegregation efforts, and continued State-sponsored dis-investment in Benton Harbor calls for a swift and strong response.

We call upon you to meet with us – to hear the students voices and the expertise of our teachers.

We call upon you to fulfill your 2018 campaign promises to support public schools, especially in high-poverty communities, to fight urban poverty, and to hold government accountable.

BHAS needs balanced, constructive leadership from you, your office and all State agencies.

We need complete transparency. We need State and local leaders to stop sensationalizing limited facts about Benton Harbor in the media and on the Michigan.gov website created by your office to promote your Plan to close Benton Harbor High School. Our community needs to feel that our youth are respected, valued and worth meaningful investment so that they may achieve their tremendous potential. The students, their families, our teachers, and our community deserve that.

Sincerely,

Steve Mitchell, Trustee and Board President

Joseph Taylor, Trustee and Board Vice-President

Patricia Rush, Trustee and Board Secretary

Denise Whatley-Seats, Trustee and Board Treasurer

Matthew Bradley, Trustee

Lue Buchana, Trustee

Michelle Crowder, Trustee