Whitmer: Benton Harbor school closure plan is no ‘ultimatum’

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Wednesday that a proposal to close Benton Harbor’s high schools was no “ultimatum,” and state and local officials will begin negotiations following the school board’s rejection of her plan last week.

The school district in southwestern Michigan is facing $18 million in debt. Only 3% of third-graders could read at grade level last year, and fewer than three 11th-graders were deemed ready for college in each of the last five years.

Whitmer, a Democrat, has faced criticism in predominantly black Benton Harbor and from some within her own party over potentially closing the high school and an alternative high school as part of a turnaround proposal. The students would attend high schools in surrounding districts, while Benton Harbor’s K-8 schools would stay open.

State officials had warned that if the school board declined the option, state law dictates that the entire district be dissolved — which occurred in Inkster and Buena Vista in 2013 — or converted into a charter school system, which happened in Muskegon Heights in 2012.

“It was a proposal. It was not an ultimatum,” Whitmer told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “Now we are entering into a time where there’s going to be a lot of negotiation and research. We’re going to have to work together to come up with a solution here, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Asked how quickly a resolution needs to be reached, she said “getting it right is the most important thing.”

Facing a deadline from Whitmer to accept the proposal, the school board last week first proposed an outline of a plan to keep the high schools open — though specifics are unclear — and then formally rejected the state plan.

Whitmer said “it’s more broad strokes. I think it’s going to have to be much more specific in order for us to get to a place where we feel like it’s a real plan. We’re going to work with them to design it so it meets our needs as a state, but it also really is about making sure that the community has the ability to be successful for the benefit of the kids.”

She said she is trying to avoid dissolving the district and understands that closing the high schools is an understandably “sensitive” issue.

“How that shakes out in our negotiations is unknown at this point in time,” Whitmer said. “But it’s something that I’m sensitive to and most importantly want to make sure that we’re swift enough that we get the high schoolers the education that they deserve.”

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