Demands closure of historic 140-yr.-0ld Benton Harbor High School, students state funds sent to outlying white districts, or will dissolve BHAS
Cites BH district’s alleged $16-18 million debt, overseen by state school bond loan fund; half of state budget also devoted to debt service
1,800 students Benton Harbor students are 92% Black, 81% poor; student video calls for state to forgive district debt
Dems including MEA, AFT teachers urge legislature to approve Whitmer’s discriminatory budget in historic betrayal
By Diane Bukowski
June 21, 2019
BENTON HARBOR, MI — “We did not realize Gov. Snyder was going to get a third term under the Whitmer administration,” Rev. David Bullock of the Change Agent Consortium said at a press conference in Lansing on June 11, 2019.
“We’ve seen the destruction of public education in Highland Park, Inkster, Detroit, and in Benton Harbor. Something seems to suggest that it’s not just about destroying public education, but also about hindering the forward education and progress of African-American students.”
Despite her campaign promise that she would prioritize funding for education, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer demanded last month that the Benton Harbor School Board either close the city’s venerable 140-year old, ONLY public high school, or face the state’s dissolution of the entire school district, and its conversion into charter schools.
If the high school is closed, Whitmer said BHHS students would be bused to largely white outlying school districts miles away, if those school districts agree to accept them.
Those districts include St. Joseph, Lakeshore, Berrien Springs, Niles, Au Claire, Colomba, Bridgman, Watervliet, and one charter school as shown in the map below.
Whitmer cited the district’s alleged $18.2 million debt, involving loans from the state school loan fund. She claimed the district was failing and cited figures regarding rates of graduation and student scores on state tests. Benton Harbor officials have challenged her figures, and a recent report on problems with the state’s computer monitoring of such scores supports their position.
After the school board voted resoundingly not to close the high school, Whitmer responded June 18, “I think we all know that doing nothing is not an option for the children of Benton Harbor. As we move forward, we must focus our efforts on finding a solution that is attainable and puts students and families first.
“Given substantial efforts by the Board to begin crafting a plan, I look forward to working in partnership towards a solution that includes clear benchmarks, accountability, and more serious measures if these benchmarks are not satisfied.” See http://voiceofdetroit.net/wp-content/uploads/Whitmer-Letter-Governor-to-BHAS-Board.pdf.
Whitmer is thus demanding the board create a deficit elimination plan that will in essence eliminate education for Benton Harbor’s students, as such plans have done for cities and school districts across Michigan under the administrations of Govs. Snyder, Jennifer Granholm, and John Engler. In fact, it was under Granholm’s administration that Detroit experienced its highest rate of school closings.
But as happened in Detroit’s phony bankruptcy, the state has estimated debt figures for Benton Harbor Area Schools that are based on a total amount over coming decades. Detroit EM Orr said Detroit was $18 billion in debt, when in fact its cash deficit from the previous year, 2013, was only $138,000,000 and was expected to be paid from future incoming revenues.
Sheila A. Alles, Interim State Superintendent, issued a quarterly report on district deficits across the state May 1, 2019, which includes the charts above. Benton Harbor is shown with a reduction in its last cash fund balance of $4.6 million, not $18.2 million. The same is true of other cities listed. The cardinal sin committed by these cities is that the state paid them per pupil funds out of its General Fund that exceeded their revenues.
The question this chart raises is: why has Whitmer targeted Benton Harbor schools, when Macomb Academy, a charter school for students with disabilities in Clinton Township, has the highest deficit? Why not any of the other school districts in the pink rows, which have largely white student populations?
Why ANY AT ALL, when the state allocates per-pupil funding at its highest levels to well-to-do districts that pay the highest property taxes? Is this apartheid education based both on race and economic prosperity?
Bridge Magazine reported, “Nationally, school district debt has grown substantially, from nearly $323 billion in 2006 to $443 billion in 2016, according to U.S. Census data. In Michigan, school districts’ long-term debt is just over $13 billion, according to the state’s Treasury Department.
“And unlike an individual — who can default if their finances change — once a district has taken out a school bond, it must pay it back, even if the community falls on hard times.
“Districts can’t default, and declaring bankruptcy is rarely an option; nationally, only six have done so in the last 60 years. Instead, school officials have to find the dollars somewhere, either by extracting it from local taxpayers or taking away resources from kids.”
A recent study identifying a serious computer miscalculation by the Power School system of Michigan’s students grades also challenges Whitmer’s allegations that Benton Harbor schools are failing.
An audit allegedly finding that only one-third of Benton Harbor students were on track to graduate was found to be seriously flawed due to a Power Schools glitch that has caused problems nationwide. But while investigating this glitch, the state claimed that it found Benton Harbor had overcounted its student population and therefore CUT BACK state per-pupil funding to the district.
In fact, census figures on education in Benton Harbor paint a much brighter picture of academic accomplishment in the district. (See graph at right). Video on Power Schools program flaw below.
Senior De;Aundre Henderson told ABC 57 that students do not want to see their high school close.
“I joined the band at the high school and I became the drum major, learned how to play the piano, tuba, all the wind instruments, drums; there’s something about what music does to me that just clicks,” Henderson said.
“Most of the students live in this area; we don’t have another school in this area to go to. Many don’t have transportation, this is like our landmark. There should be some other solution. People want to carry on the legacy.”
In a recent video rap video, Benton Harbor students, who are playing a leading role in the battle to save their schools, raised a logical solution: forgive the district debt to the banks, which is governed by the state’s school loan board.
MISSION MUSIC – GET UP (featuring De’Asha Spencer-Kyle, 2Tru, Cam G & QueenBarzz)
With a poverty rate of 48 percent, Benton Harbor is one of the poorest cities in the U.S. It is situated across the river from St. Joseph, a mostly white, prosperous enclave.
Whirlpool, previously its major employer, moved all its plants out of the city. Then it took advantage of former Gov. Rick Snyder’s appointment of an emergency manager to seize most of the city’s public land, including its beautiful lakefront properties. Now corporate forces who funded Whitmer’s campaign want its schools.
Gov. Snyder targeted Benton Harbor first for the EM appointments under Public Act 436. Most of the other cities were also a majority Black. EM’s everywhere gutted public assets, institutions, services, jobs, and pensions, allegedly to pay back debts to the banks, but in fact to provide megaprofits for Wall Street.
Using a technicality, that Act violated a state-wide public referendum in which 82 out of 84 counties in the State voted “NO” to EM laws. (The two which voted YES where Oakland and Macomb Counties.)
Benton Harbor leaders, students and residents say they have finally had enough. They are warning the rest of the state that, just as they were the first city targeted by Snyder, an attack on other public school districts and cities will follow.
However, the state’s union leadership and other forces associated with the Democratic Party are hailing Whitmer, a strategy that failed with two referendums in 2016. Proposal 1 demanded the dissolution of Public Act 4 and was supported financially by only one union, which represented public workers, AFSCME Council 25. The movement against PA 4 was fueled by Gov. Snyder’s attack on the state’s majority-Black cities.
Proposal 1 passed resoundingly, underlining the need for the labor movement to line up with the oppressed Black population of this state and country.
Proposal 2, which would have written the right to organize unions into the State constitution, was broadly funded by virtually every other union in the state, who withheld funding from Proposal 1. It failed resoundingly, turning Michigan, into a “Right-to-Work” state.
On June 18, the Detroit News reported, “Thousands of Michigan educators rallied Tuesday outside the state Capitol, wearing “red for ed” as they called on the Republican-led Legislature to ‘fund our schools’ and adopt Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s budget plan.
“[Whitmer] was hailed by union leaders as a key ally in the battle against charter schools and privatization pushed by national GOP leaders like Betsy DeVos.
“It’s a new day in Lansing, and we have a fighter on our side who understands that we have to stop short-changing students and we have to invest in our future,” said David Hecker, president of the Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.”
When will they ever learn? The leadership of the UAW, Teamsters and other unions marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960’s in support of the Black-led civil rights movement.
‘As Angela Davis said, “If they come for me in the morning, they will come for you at night!” It is clearly time that the people of Michigan and of the U.S. begin to organize their own broad, militant grass roots movements against attacks like those from Whitmer, and from President Donald Trump, as opposed to depending on the Democratic Party.
Various related stories from VOD (many more on school closings, Benton Harbor and Public Act 4–put these terms in search engine)