BHAS Board To Governor: Hands Off Benton Harbor High School

Hands off. That’s the message from the Benton Harbor Area Schools Board of Trustees to Governor Whitmer and her administration regarding the possible closure of Benton Harbor High School after the 2020-2021 school year. The board has sent her a letter urging her to attend a meeting at the high school on Tuesday, June 4 at 6 p.m. to let her hear from those directly impacted by the plan. State officials with the Treasury and Education departments announced on Friday that the school board is being given a proposal to close the high school and keep BHAS a kindergarten through 8th grade district, with eight area districts taking in the high school students. If they vote against the proposal, the state says further action will be up to the Legislature and warn normally, the next step is to dissolve the entire district.

Trustees are upset by the threat, as are many members of the community, especially given state officials informed Benton Harbor officials last, after talking to all other area school districts, Berrien RESA, and elected officials from other cities. The board reminds the governor in the letter they have worked in good faith with both Treasury and Education to address the issues at BHAS, including sending an outline for a new Strategic Plan to Treasury, but say no action has been taken on that. On Friday, Benton Harbor Area Schools CEO Robert Herrera also said he had been left out of the loop with the state regarding the high school.

Here is the letter from the Benton Harbor Area Schools Board to the governor:

OPEN LETTER TO MICHIGAN GOVERNOR GRETCHEN WHITMER FROM THE ELECTED SCHOOL
BOARD OF BENTON HARBOR AREA SCHOOLS, BENTON HARBOR, MICHIGAN.

Dear Governor Whitmer –

We respectfully and urgently request that you visit Benton Harbor in person to meet in an Open Public Meeting with the community and the elected School Board trustees regarding the future of Benton Harbor High School and the K-12 District as a whole.

The School Board is hosting an Open Public Meeting at the Benton Harbor High School Student Commons on Tuesday June 4 at 6 pm. We would love to host you and let you hear the full story. Hopefully you are aware that representatives from your office, Treasury and the Department of Education are claiming that, on your behalf, a unilateral decision has been made to close Benton Harbor High School in 2020. The Board was told by your representatives that a decision was made by your office to intentionally exclude the elected School Board trustees and exclude open community input from the decision-making process. Honestly, we are completely shocked and dismayed by this action. Our Board has been working in good faith with both Treasury and Education to address issues at BHAS including an outline for a new Strategic Plan, submitted to Treasury, but upon which your departments have taken no action.

We also want to openly confront the many “elephants in the room” that neither your staff nor the news media have addressed:

• The land upon which the Benton Harbor High School sits with its athletic fields and adjacent School Board properties are the LAST MAJOR UNDEVELOPED WATERFRONT PROPERTIES in Berrien County, Michigan. Is this just a coincidence, given that your office just told our Board representatives on 5/24/19 that your plan to close Benton Harbor High School has major (but unnamed) supporters in the nearby business community?

• The Draft Plan from your office is explicitly a transfer of wealth from an overwhelmingly poor and black community (Benton Harbor) to nearby white, more affluent communities. Under your Plan, that transfer of wealth will occur through the loss by Benton Harbor of its school facilities and use of school land, transfer of state funding from Benton Harbor to the adjacent nine school districts where you plan Benton Harbor students to be redistributed, and loss of jobs for local teachers and staff of all levels.

• The contention by representatives of your office that hiring a single staff person to act as a “Cultural Dean” to smooth over “discomfort” that the displaced 700 black students might feel when transported out of their community to predominantly white schools is an appalling insult to our youth and the community. Such insensitivity to the painful history of racial segregation, unsuccessful past desegregation efforts, and continued State-sponsored dis-investment in Benton Harbor calls for a swift and strong response.

We call upon you to meet with us – to hear the students voices and the expertise of our teachers. We call upon you to fulfill your 2018 campaign promises to support public schools, especially in high-poverty communities, to fight urban poverty, and to hold government accountable. BHAS needs balanced, constructive leadership from you, your office and all State agencies.

We need complete transparency. We need State and local leaders to stop sensationalizing limited facts about Benton Harbor in the media and on the Michigan.gov website created by your office to promote your Plan to close Benton Harbor High School. Our community needs to feel that our youth are respected, valued and worth meaningful investment so that they may achieve their tremendous potential. The students, their families, our teachers, and our community deserve that.

Sincerely,

Steve Mitchell, Trustee and Board President
Joseph Taylor, Trustee and Board Vice-President
Patricia Rush, Trustee and Board Secretary
Denise Whatley-Seats, Trustee and Board Treasurer
Matthew Bradley, Trustee
Lue Buchana, Trustee
Michelle Crowder, Trustee