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Benton Harbor High School

Tentative agreement would keep Benton Harbor (Mich.) high school open

State officials had recommended closing Benton Harbor High to avoid dissolution of the debt-ridden district.

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has reached a tentative agreement that would avoid the closure of Benton Harbor’s high school and dissolution of its district.

The Detroit News reports that the agreement, which still needs approval from the Benton Harbor school board, came out of a meeting the governor's staff had with Benton Harbor school officials and members of the state education and treasury departments. The details of the agreement have not been disclosed.

"Representatives from the governor’s office and the Department of Treasury had a productive meeting with Benton Harbor school board members regarding a tentative joint plan that requires the district to meet attainable benchmarks and goals to show improvement in academic outcomes among Benton Harbor area students while stabilizing the finances of the district," says Tiffany Brown, a spokeswoman for the governor.

Brown says the state has "has identified national experts who have experience turning around school districts that are struggling, and we would like to engage in a day of learning alongside the board and community partners."

Asked about the tentative agreement, school board secretary Patricia Rush said the board is planning a meeting on July 2 and another meeting the week of July 8.

Benton Harbor Mayor Marcus Muhammad did not attend the meeting, but spoke to a member of the governor’s staff to learn details.

“It’s a one-year agreement, and there will be resources allocated and restructuring of the debt,” Muhammad says.

After one year, academic and financial progress will be reviewed and next steps discussed, Muhammad says.

“Some would say you can live to fight another day,” Muhammad says. “However we hope the fight to shut down is over and the fight to improve begins.”.

Whitmer’s administration had proposed closing the high school, as well as an alternative high school, to avoid complete dissolution of the predominantly African American district. It argued that a smaller K-8 system would make it easier for officials to pay off debt.

After the Benton Harbor school board formally rejected Whitmer's plan earlier this month, the school board pitched its own financial and academic plans to Whitmer.

It's unclear whether the state accepted any part of the school district's proposal.

Treasury Department spokesman Ron Leix says the school district's short- and long-term debt is $18.4 million, and is expected to rise to $21.5 million at the end of fiscal 2020.

The high school closure plan, which had been eyed for the 2020-21 school year, sparked fierce opposition in a city that has struggled amid decades of white flight, racial strife and a shrinking student population. 

Benton Harbor has operated a deficit budget in its general fund since the mid-2000s. Enrollment has fallen 45% over the last 20 years.

Of the 3,755 children residing within the Benton Harbor School boundaries in 2018-19, the state says 1,922 attended Benton Harbor public schools, and 1,833 attend school outside the district. Benton Harbor schools officials say the number of students in school this year is closer to 1,800 students.

Of those attending school outside Benton Harbor public schools, 1,463 are at charter schools and 370 attend campuses in nearby school districts.

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