The Benton Harbor (Mich.) school board has unanimously rejected a proposal from Gov. Gretchen Whittmer that would have required the district to “suspend” operations at Benton Harbor High School in one year if certain academic and financial benchmarks weren’t reached.
The Herald-Palladium reports that it is the second time board members have voted down a proposal from the state. The first proposal was released May 24 and voted down on June 14. That one would have suspended operations at the high school in 2020 so the school district could focus on raising student achievement in K-8 and on reducing the district’s $18.4 million debt.
Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad says a minimum of three years would be needed to turn a school around.
“This is a plan to fail,” he says. “Also, shutdown is off the table. This community will not and does not support any tentative agreement, plan, proposal with shutdown on the table.”
Whitmer had announced a tentative agreement last week that sought to avoid closing Benton Harbor High and dissolving the school district. State officials say the school district has a short- and long-term debt is $18.4 million, and it is expected to rise to $21.5 million at the end of fiscal 2020.
The governor's office express disappointment at the Benton Harbor board's action.
“The Benton Harbor school board’s action tonight to vote down the resolution to put students first is a setback for Benton Harbor students, parents, and the community, said Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for Whitmer. "By voting not to accept this proposal – which was developed with direct input from board members and attorneys – board members are sending a troubling signal to parents that they are unwilling to negotiate in good faith to address the district’s academic and financial challenges. The governor remains committed to finding a solution that puts Benton Harbor students first."
School board Secretary Patricia Rush, who traveled to the state capital in Lansing last month to discuss the proposal, contended that she has never been treated as poorly as the staff at the governor’s office has been treating the Benton Harbor board. Rush says the governor’s staff has been disrespectful and intimidating.
Rush said that during the recent Lansing meeting, she and the other school officials who went with her were given the proposal and a list of potential turnaround partners.
“It was never discussed with us. We never agreed to any of it,” she says. “And yet, before we were able to get in the car to drive home from Lansing, this was put out to the media by the governor’s office.”
Rush asserts that the governor's staff's announcement last week that the board had agreed to the tentative proposal was not true.
“In the last 24 hours, I have personally received over 20 communications, including some threatening communications, from people who believed that the board had sold the community out,” she says.
But Brown, the governor's spokeswoman, provided an email that Rush sent to Brown on June 27 that contradicts Rush's assertions.
“Thanks for the opportunity to meet with you and representatives of the Governor’s Staff, Treasury and MDE [Department of Education] yesterday," Rush told Brown. "We are eager to move ahead with a plan that puts our students first and is mutually agreeable between the State, our Board, and our community. As we continue the process of collaborating with the State, we want to ensure our planning meets your objectives and timeframe as noted in the meeting yesterday.
The email from Rush continued: "[W]e will have a Board meeting early next week to adopt the resolution to declare our intent to move forward collaboratively with the State."
The state’s proposal called for Benton Harbor to increase pay to teachers to the Berrien Regional Education Service Agency average. A minimum of $1.3 million would be needed to meet this directive.
The benchmarks the district would have to achieve in one year include:
• decreasing the percentage of chronically absent students by 25 percent;
• increasing the number of certified teachers by 25 percent;
• reducing the use of long-term substitutes by 20 percent;
• increasing student growth in math and English on standardized tests by at least 3 percent.
Financial benchmarks that would have to be reached in one year include:
• hiring a highly qualified superintendent and chief financial officer and retaining them for one year;
• decreasing the percentage of the district’s budget used for non-instructional expenditures by at least 10 percent.