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Benton Harbor school board refuses Whitmer administration's plan to close high school

Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Radio
Hundreds gather in the Benton Harbor High School auditorium to call for the school to remain open.

Governor Whitmer is expected in Benton Harbor this afternoon for a town hall meeting about the city’s school district. Whitmer’s administration says Benton Harbor High School must shut down to keep the district out of financial insolvency.

Hundreds gathered in the city last night to oppose that plan.

Some drove in from around the state where schools have closed in the past.

Sonya Brown is from Albion, where the high school closed in 2013. The entire district was annexed three years later.

“We were tricked,” Brown said. “Do not vote away your high school. If Governor Whitmer is bold enough to shut you down, you make her come in here and own it and do it. You don’t do it.”

The Michigan Department of Treasury says Benton Harbor Area Schools is more than $18 million in debt, and students aren’t keeping up with state standards. The state says only three percent of third graders in BHAS could read at their grade level in 2018. And the state says none of the district’s 11th graders are “college ready.”

"Numbers don't define our intelligence. We are way smarter than you guys make us out to be." said one Benton Harbor High School student

Tuesday night, more than a dozen students stood on the stage in the high school auditorium to make the case for why the school should be saved. A number of graduating seniors have already been accepted to colleges, including Stanford and Ball State, the students said.

“They don’t know us,” one student, who identified herself as Tanae Allen, said. “Numbers don’t define our intelligence. We are way smarter than you guys make us out to be.”

Members of the Benton Harbor Areas Schools board say they are unified in opposing the closure of the high school. They say they have a plan to cut costs and improve learning without closing the high school. They say much of the district’s debt is debt owed to the state of Michigan. The only way the district could end up in financial insolvency, school board members say, is if the state calls in that debt.

A representative from Governor Whitmer’s office said the governor couldn’t make it to the Tuesday meeting, but she plans to be in the city today at 4 p.m. to discuss the plan with city residents. 

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Radio’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Radio since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.
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