The End for a Michigan City’s High School? ‘It Would Kill the Whole Community’

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — In Benton Harbor, a small city beside Lake Michigan, the high school binds generations and strangers. This is a place where basketball games are a highlight of the social calendar, where signs celebrating state championships are placed at the edge of city limits, where residents say what year they graduated when they introduce themselves.

For years, Benton Harbor’s school system had faced dismal fiscal conditions, miserable academic rankings and intense scrutiny from the state. But when Michigan voters chose a new governor last November, it was seen as a hopeful sign in Benton Harbor. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat who won more than 90 percent of the vote in this city, presented herself as a supporter of investment in struggling places, a defender of public schools, someone who cared about Benton Harbor.

But in May, Ms. Whitmer brought a grim message: Benton Harbor should close its high school and the state could forgive the district millions of dollars in debts. Otherwise, the entire school district was at risk of shutting down.

The proposal was seen as a betrayal in Benton Harbor, a predominantly black city where the high school has operated since the 1870s. What would it say to the children, residents asked, if their hometown was deemed unfit for a high school? And without Benton Harbor High School — without Tiger football games and the robotics team and the marching band — what would be left of Benton Harbor?

“It would kill the whole community,” said Greg Hill, 18, who graduated from Benton Harbor High this month and said he hoped to eventually return to the school as a history teacher. He called Ms. Whitmer’s plan “educational genocide.”

Michigan has a uniquely troubled history of state intervention in financially struggling cities with mostly African-American residents. In Inkster, where 72 percent of residents are black, the school district dissolved six years ago after the state deemed it financially unviable. In Detroit, where the population is 79 percent black, the state seized control of the school system and took the municipal government through bankruptcy. In Flint, 54 percent black, a state-appointed emergency manager changed the drinking water source and touched off the city’s water crisis.

So in Benton Harbor, where 86 percent of the 10,000 residents are black, many people saw Ms. Whitmer’s proposal not as an unavoidable end to longstanding academic and fiscal problems with the high school, but as the racist result of years of state meddling and disinvestment.

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Marcus Muhammad, the mayor of Benton Harbor, graduated from the high school and later taught and coached basketball there.CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Mayor Marcus Muhammad called it the “Godfather proposal” — a poisonous deal framed as an offer Benton Harbor can’t refuse.

Benton Harbor, a former manufacturing hub with scenic landscapes but also vacant lots, is a city that has become accustomed to struggles: with racism, with civil unrest, with a shrunken population, with low test scores, with stifling debt. The city’s boom days of manufacturing parts for cars, washing machines and fighter planes are long gone, and nearly half its residents now live in poverty.

At different points in recent years, governors from both parties have stripped power from the mayor and school board because of fiscal emergencies. Few in the city believe those interventions have left them better off.

“For those who see Benton Harbor as hopeless, helpless, mismanaged, poor, failed leadership, on a dead-end course, it’s easy for them to say, ‘Shut it down,’” said Mr. Muhammad, who graduated from the high school and later taught and coached basketball there. “But for somebody, as myself, who was a great beneficiary of the greatness of Benton Harbor, I can look at the faults, look at the areas that need improvement and say, ‘I’m willing to work on them.’”

The problems facing the school district are severe. According to the state, only 3 percent of third graders read at grade level and fewer than three high school juniors have been deemed “college-ready” in each of the last five years. Enrollment is down — the families of most children living in the district choose to send them to school elsewhere — and the system is drowning in $ 18.4 million in debt.

“I think the worst thing we could do is deny that the problem exists,” Ms. Whitmer said in an interview. “We have to triage what is a crisis in Benton Harbor.”

Under Michigan’s previous governor, Rick Snyder, a Republican, the school district entered agreements that ceded some local control and called for financial and academic overhauls. The moves were part of the Snyder administration’s aggressive oversight of financially ailing cities and school districts. In other places, including Inkster and Buena Vista Township, near Saginaw, school districts folded during Mr. Snyder’s tenure.

Defenders of Mr. Snyder’s approach called it a way to protect taxpayers, fix failing governments and enroll students in higher-performing schools. In the places that were targeted, it was often seen as racist and anti-democratic. In Benton Harbor, residents and city officials chafed under the state’s close watch, and rumors about a school shutdown began to surface.

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Members of the high school flag team led a march to mark the end of the academic year.CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Many saw the election of Ms. Whitmer as a likely reprieve. She campaigned in the city, long a Democratic stronghold. She talked about disparities in school funding in the state, which she said especially hurt cities like Benton Harbor. She promised to help fix it.

“There is a racial element: It’s undeniable,” Ms. Whitmer said. “We’ve had inequitable funding of schools for decades in the state of Michigan.”

So residents were stunned when not even six months into Ms. Whitmer’s first term, she declared Benton Harbor High too broken to stay open.

“I’m tired of 90 percent of the politicians coming through here to get our votes, but when we need help, they turn their back on us,” said Anthony Cooper, who has grandchildren at Benton Harbor High and who said he had volunteered for Ms. Whitmer’s campaign. Mr. Cooper, a loyal Democrat, said he would sooner vote for a Republican than support her again.

“I thought she was going to be true to her word,” he said.

Under Ms. Whitmer’s plan, Benton Harbor High would close after the next school year and students would be bussed to neighboring districts or attend a career-focused program at a local community college. The district, Benton Harbor Area Schools, would continue to teach students through eighth grade. If test scores and finances improved, Ms. Whitmer said it was possible that the high school could reopen someday. She presented her plan as an alternative that avoided closing the district entirely.

“The worst thing we can do is graduate kids who aren’t prepared for the real world,” Ms. Whitmer said.

Lou Ann Vidmar of the Michigan Education Association, the union representing Benton Harbor teachers, said her members had long been fed up with low pay and mismanagement. She said that Ms. Whitmer’s plan was “a wake-up call for the district” — and that “they needed it.”

“If it gets the community to rally around the school and come up with a viable plan for the future, I’m all for it,” Ms. Vidmar said.

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The problems facing Benton Harbor High and the district’s other schools are severe.CreditAlyssa Schukar for The New York Times

But in interviews around Benton Harbor, almost no one seemed amenable to Ms. Whitmer’s plan to close the high school. Residents acknowledged the district’s problems, but said that the state was complicit in those struggles, and that their city deserved another chance to set things right.

“The people who are wearing the scars didn’t cause the problem: We’re talking about kids who have to bear the burden,” said Danny Jennings, a baseball coach and teacher at the high school. He said the state should forgive the district’s debt without closing the school.

The school board, facing a deadline to decide whether to accept Ms. Whitmer’s plan, held an emergency meeting last Monday. For nearly an hour, residents — several wearing orange Benton Harbor Tiger apparel — went to the microphone, appealing for some compromise.

The board passed a plan that they said would address problems while keeping all the schools open. The proposal was light on financial details. Ms. Whitmer was noncommittal, but her spokeswoman, Tiffany Brown, said on Friday that discussions were continuing.

At the same school board meeting on Monday, Benton Harbor’s superintendent, Robert Herrera, resigned, effective immediately.

The next morning, teenagers filled the halls of Benton Harbor High, just like they have for more than a century. Summer break beckoned. The marching band and flag team led a parade to a local park. That unmistakable last-day-of-school feeling lingered in the air: Relief, excitement, talk of part-time jobs and future plans.

But there was uncertainty and anger, too — a sense that they, and their city, had been given up on.

As he prepared for the parade, Gershon Clay, 17, an aspiring engineer who was finishing his junior year, said the school had nurtured his love of robotics and been a refuge for students who face troubles at home. He said the governor was making a mistake.

“I feel like they’re trying to shut down the kids that are trying,” he said.

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