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State recommends closing Benton Harbor's high schools

The state of Michigan's treasury department has recommended Benton Harbor Area Schools close Benton Harbor High School and the alternative high school so the district can focus on students in K-8th grade.

Members of the department met with officials from Benton Harbor on Friday to discuss the plan.

The school board will need to approve the proposal before it goes into effect.

State officials believe this plan will help the district, which is $16 million in debt, and will help the district focus on helping younger students prepare for success.

As part of the plan, Benton Harbor High School and the alternative high school would close as of the 2020-2021 school year.

High school students would be able to attend one of eight area high schools or get a CTE focused education and earn college credits through Lake Michigan College.

The state says transportation would be provided to all students who will be transferred to another high school.

“There’s no question that this will be an adjustment for Benton Harbor families, but this is the best solution to serve students and get the district on track to resolving their debt,” said Treasurer Rachael Eubanks. “Sitting back and doing nothing is not an option. We’re proud of the solution we’ve put on the table and believe it’s a much better option than what has happened in the past, where districts have been completely dissolved or converted to a charter system. This way, we can ensure K-8 students can get the skills they need and area high schoolers can get on a path to post-secondary success.”

If the district does not approve the proposal, the district will dissolve or be converted into a charter system, according to state officials.

ABC 57 reached out for comment from nearby school districts as well as local and state officials:

Dr. Trevor Kubatzke, Lake Michigan College President
Lake Michigan College is committed to advancing education in our communities for both adults and high school-aged students. We’ve successfully served thousands of high school students enrolled in our early college programs and we would certainly embrace the opportunity to deliver career and technical education to students who are currently enrolled in Benton Harbor High School. LMC offers excellent CTE programs and there are many career opportunities for workers with these skills. We’re here to help if needed.

Eau Claire Schools:
Multiple local schools and two other local partners have agreed to assist with whatever plan is ultimately decided upon. Please know that the details to implement this plan are immense and those of us ready to help all have many, many questions and concerns that will need to be discussed and agreed upon before I can clearly detail how this impacts us.

St. Joseph Public Schools:
Multiple local schools and two other local partners have agreed to assist with whatever plan is ultimately decided upon. Please know that the details to implement this plan are immense and those of us ready to help all have many, many questions and concerns that will need to be discussed and agreed upon before I can clearly detail how this impacts us.

Coloma Schools:
Coloma, along with multiple local schools and two other local partners have agreed to assist with whatever plan is ultimately decided upon. Please know that the details to implement this plan are immense and those of us ready to help all have many, many questions and concerns that will need to be discussed and agreed upon before I can clearly detail how this impacts us.

Niles Community Schools:
In the interest of ensuring the students of Benton Harbor have the educational opportunities they need, Niles Community Schools, along with the other school districts in Berrien County and two other local partners, has agreed to provide support for whichever plan is ultimately selected. While the decision remains in the hands of the BHAS School Board and Michigan Department of Education, we stand at the ready to support the students and families of Benton Harbor.

Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart
Above all else, we need to make sure Benton Harbor’s students get a quality education that prepares them for life after school. Unfortunately, given past decisions, Benton Harbor’s dedicated educators haven’t always been provided the tools to be successful.  For too many years, they’ve been shortchanged both in terms of resources – like quality books, curriculum, training and technology – and compensation. While the proposal put forth today is not ideal, it’s the best solution for students and families – far better than closing down Benton Harbor’s schools and leaving that community, its students and its school employees without options. This is a bold solution that will put Benton Harbor students on a path to success. The MEA is ready to partner with our local members, the local school board, surrounding districts, Lake Michigan College, and everyone else who wants to ensure Benton Harbor students and educators can thrive.



The state released the following information to help answer some questions parents may have.

WHY IS THIS HAPPENING?
In 2018, only 3 percent of third grade students were reading at grade level, and zero 11th graders were deemed college-ready each of the last five years. The district is more than $16 million in debt, with $700 per student being spent to pay back debt every year. We can’t set our kids up for failure. It’s time to make a real, meaningful change that will get our students on a path to postsecondary success and economic opportunity.

IS THE STATE OF MICHIGAN GOING TO FORGIVE THE DEBT?
If the local school board approves this plan, the governor’s office will work with the treasury department and the Legislature on providing transition support that could be used to stabilize their finances.  

HOW WILL THE STATE MAKE SURE THE K-8 SCHOOLS ARE BETTER PREPARING STUDENTS FOR SUCCESS?
The governor’s office will work with the Michigan Department of Education and the local school board on an improvement plan that prepares every K-8 student for success. Right now, our kids aren’t getting on paths to success. In 2018, only 3 percent of students were reading at grade level. That has to change. We’re going to develop a real plan that prepares our kids.

WHAT HIGH SCHOOLS IN THE AREA HAVE AGREED TO THIS PARTNERSHIP?
Seven area high schools have expressed interest in partnering with the Benton Harbor Area Schools to help get high school students on paths to postsecondary education. These are for students who want to seek a more traditional high school experience. For students who want to seek a CTE-focused education or an Early/Middle College experience, Lake Michigan Academy at Lake Michigan College has agreed to partner with the district and help our students focus on career pathways and earn college credit while still in high school.

HOW WILL HIGH SCHOOL FAMILIES KNOW WHAT HIGH SCHOOL THEY’LL TRANSFER TO? DO THEY PICK THEM OR ARE THEY SELECTED FOR THEM?
We are still in the planning process. It’s likely that families will be able to choose the high school their child will attend. This won’t happen until the 2020-21 school year. Transportation will be provided to the area high schools at no cost to families.

WILL TRANSPORTATION BE INCLUDED IN THIS DEAL?
Yes, every high school student will have transportation to and from their new high school at no cost to families.

WHAT ABOUT SPORTS?
Lake Michigan College will support all sports except for football, and the area high schools will support all sports.

WHAT ABOUT THE MASCOT?
LMC has the option to carry the Tigers mascot at Lake Michigan Academy, the CTE-focused high school and early/middle college program on the campus of Lake Michigan College.

WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO THE HIGH SCHOOL BUILDING?
The district will still have control of the school building while high school operations are suspended. The governor is ready to work with the district to make sure we find the best long-term use for the high school but this will ultimately be a local decision.

WHAT IF THE SCHOOL BOARD DOESN’T APPROVE THIS PLAN?
This is the best plan to get Michigan high school students on paths to postsecondary education and allowing K-8 students to stay close to home. If the School Board chooses not to pursue this option, state law dictates that either the entire district will dissolve or be converted into a charter school system. These aren’t the options we want. That’s why we’re putting forward a compromise to stabilize their finances and focus on younger students in Benton Harbor.

HAS THIS WORKED IN OTHER SCHOOL DISTRICTS?
This a bold, innovative solution. We don’t want to see complete loss of districts like what we saw in Buena Vista and Inkster –or converting to a charter school district, like what we saw in Muskegon Heights.

WHAT ABOUT THE EDUCATORS WHO WORK AT THE HIGH SCHOOL? WILL THEY LOSE THEIR JOBS?
Through the partnership with area high schools, certified teachers will be able to transfer and teach at another school.

DO YOU ANTICIPATE A LOT OF PUSHBACK ON YOUR PLAN?
This is the best plan to get Michigan high school students on paths to postsecondary success and allow K-8 students to stay close to home.
It has the support of the MEA and the current superintendent of the Benton Harbor Area Schools. This is about ensuring our kids can get a great public education, no matter what community they live in.

DISSOLVING THE DISTRICT WOULD REQUIRE A BILL TO GO THROUGH THE LEGISLATURE. DO YOU THINK THE LEGISLATURE WOULD VOTE TO CLOSE DOWN A SCHOOL?
The state has been coordinating with local legislators on this, and legislators may feel they have no other option given the academic and financial distress of the district. Anyone who is committed to making sure our kids can get a great education knows that this is the best option for Benton Harbor families.

HOW WILL HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS WHO AREN’T AS PREPARED AS THEY SHOULD BE CATCH UP WHEN THEY GET TO OTHER SCHOOLS?
If this plan is approved, we will have a year of intensive planning to make sure kids can get on track when they get to their new school. Community partners are committed to be a part of the solution.

WHAT ABOUT PROM?
LMC will have a prom, as will the area high schools.

WHAT IF I HAVE A CHILD IN SPECIAL EDUCATION?
It’s likely that families will be able to choose the high school their child will attend and we will make sure transportation isn’t a barrier.

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