Whitmer: Benton Harbor school board vote is a ‘setback’

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LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday called the Benton Harbor school board’s decision to reject a plan to potentially avoid closing the city’s high school a “setback,” saying it sent a “troubling signal” to parents.

The board voted against a resolution Tuesday that called for moving forward collaboratively on what state officials said was a tentative joint agreement, surprising the administration.

“The Benton Harbor School Board’s action to vote down the resolution to put students first is a setback for Benton Harbor students, parents and the community,” Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown said. “By voting not to accept this proposal — which was developed with direct input from BHAS 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.”

School board members could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But they said during Tuesday’s meeting that they would never support any plan that could lead to the high school’s closure and accused administration officials of lying and using intimidating tactics.

In May, the Democratic governor proposed closing Benton Harbor’s high school and alternative high school in 2020 and sending students to surrounding districts so the struggling district could focus on K-8 education. State officials warned that if the school board declined the option, state law dictates that the entire district be dissolved or converted into a charter school system.

The board rejected the proposal in June, and members met with Whitmer’s staff and representatives from the state education and treasury departments last week. A new plan, an overview of which was released Monday, would require the high schools to close in 2020 if the district did not meet certain academic and financial benchmarks such as increasing the number of certified teachers, decreasing the use of substitutes, boosting teacher pay and improving students’ performance on the state-required tests.

The 1,900-student district in southwestern Michigan is facing $18 million in debt, and the state has warned that it may face cash flow problems in the spring of 2020. Fewer than 5% of third- through eighth-graders were proficient on M-STEP math and reading assessments in 2017-18, well below statewide averages ranging between 34% and 47%. Fewer than 5% of 11th-graders who took the SAT were deemed college-ready, compared with 35% statewide.

The board on Monday regained full authority of the district after the repeal of a section of state law in December’s lame-duck legislative session.

In November, the administration of then-Republican Gov. Rick Snyder released Benton Harbor from a consent agreement that had been signed in 2014 to improve the district’s finances. In 2017, the state and district entered a “partnership” agreement to focus on its academics, which was replaced in 2018 with a “cooperative agreement” that ended Sunday.

Bill DiSessa, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said Wednesday that further action by the agency’s Office of Partnership Districts is on hold to see what transpires between Whitmer’s office and the local school board.

“The governor remains committed to finding a solution that puts Benton Harbor students first,” said Brown, who released an email that one board member, Patricia Rush, sent after last week’s meeting indicating the board would adopt the resolution to move forward collaboratively with the state.

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