Compromise May Be At Hand To Save A Michigan High School

Jul 2, 2019
Originally published on July 2, 2019 7:19 am
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In this country now, a small town in southwest Michigan has been fighting to save its high school. The state has moved to close the school to save money. Michigan Radio's Bryce Huffman reports a resolution may be at hand.

BRYCE HUFFMAN, BYLINE: In one corner of this fight is Benton Harbor. The town on Lake Michigan has some 10,000 people. More than 85% are black. Nearly half live below the poverty line. And here, the idea of having to close the town's high school isn't sitting well, says local pastor Steven McCoy.

STEVEN MCCOY: This school's shut down, it's going to be devastating, not just to our children but also to our community.

HUFFMAN: Mayor Marcus Muhammad says Benton Harbor losing its high school would be like Ann Arbor losing the University of Michigan or East Lansing losing Michigan State.

MARCUS MUHAMMAD: And if you can imagine what that would do - economically, socially, politically - for those communities and cities, it's a hundred times that for Benton Harbor.

HUFFMAN: Muhammad even accused Governor Gretchen Whitmer, who is white, of wanting to close the high school because it is predominantly black.

MUHAMMAD: If it's not race, then how can it be explained any other way?

HUFFMAN: The state's explanation boils down to two words - money and academics. The Benton Harbor school district is $18.4 million in debt. And because it's been steadily losing students, it's also been losing money. The district is also struggling academically. The state says few students at the high school leave college-ready. That's why Whitmer and her administration gave the district an ultimatum in May - shut down the high school, or risk having the entire district shut down.

GRETCHEN WHITMER: So when we looked at the outcomes for kids in combination with the debt, it was important that we have a swift and bold action here to ensure that the kids are getting the education that they need.

HUFFMAN: As a part of the plan, this town's high schoolers would be bused to neighboring districts. The news felt like a gut punch to many in town. But it wasn't necessarily surprising, says Gregory Hill, who just graduated from Benton Harbor High.

GREGORY HILL: It was always a conversation. The way I look at it, to - the simplest way to explain it is, like, imagine having a disease and then just waking up one day, and it's just, like, fatal.

HUFFMAN: This turmoil is nothing new for Benton Harbor. Over the years, the district has had state emergency management and more than its fair share of staff turnover and disappointment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOLANDA BELL: And I'm not giving you my grandchild.

HUFFMAN: Yolanda Bell spoke out recently at a school board meeting. She's one of many in town who says it is time for some radical change. Bell pulled her kids out of Benton Harbor schools years ago. She's now a grandmother.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BELL: Nobody's getting my grandchildren till you can prove to me, as some others done went through, what you got to offer me.

HUFFMAN: Bell says her biggest complaints about those poor academics and fighting in school haven't gotten better. And she's not alone in her distrust. Nearly two-thirds of school-aged kids who live in the district don't go to Benton Harbor public schools. This fight also goes beyond the town's borders. Leaders from other low-income, predominantly black Michigan districts have been here before and are speaking out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SONYA BROWN: We were tricked. Do not vote away your high school.

HUFFMAN: Sonya Brown was on the school board in Albion, Mich. when the district was folded into a neighboring one in 2016. She shared her story with the Benton Harbor school board as a cautionary tale.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BROWN: 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.

HUFFMAN: A few weeks ago, the school board officially agreed and voted no to the state's plan, refusing to close its high school. But rather than keep fighting, the state offered a compromise - so long as the district can meet several new financial and academic goals, the high school can stay open, at least for another year.

(SOUNDBITE OF SINITUS TEMPO'S "NEW BLACK CITY")

HUFFMAN: The Benton Harbor School Board is expected to vote on the deal tonight. For NPR News, I'm Bryce Huffman in West Michigan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.