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.