Candidate Gretchen Whitmer told voters last year that she recognized the need to provide more support to Black school districts. But soon after taking office her staff was threatening the Benton Harbor Area Schools board if they did not retain the superintendent put over the schools by the Snyder administration. The Board thought that they had worked that out quietly. Then Whitmer ordered them to close their only high school and if they failed to do so, she would shut down their whole district!
The Benton Harbor Area Schools Board of Education has been gutted since Rick Snyder took over their district in 2014 and left the board without official authority. At that time, the district had a $15 million deficit. Since the state took over the district, grant money was lost that was designed to improve the district and the deficit is higher than before the state takeover. Just like what happened in Detroit.
The State had also taken over the City of Benton Harbor in 2010. Some measures of the city’s Emergency Manager granting tax abatements to developers also harmed funding for the schools.
During the period of state control, leadership over Benton Harbor schools changed five times in a four year period. Since stability of leadership is needed for long term developmental improvement, this chaotic management is seen as harmful to academic success in the classroom.
But Governor Whitmer is not looking at the state role in harming the district. She is not saying that the state has failed for years, which it has. She has not acknowledged that the school did not have power to control the district. Nor does it have power today. Yet she is punishing the board, the school community and the City for the failed authority of the State of Michigan.
Even the Snyder administration decided in November 2018 to abolish the office controlling the district and for the elected board to assume power July 1, 2019. Now Whitmer is stopping that instead of letting the Michigan Department of Education work with the board to bring in necessary changes. And she is asking Republican legislators to help her eliminate the district entirely.
The role of the current and past Governors to manage school districts is very plainly unconstitutional. Article V of the Michigan Constitution gives no power whatsoever to the Governor for K-12 education. Nor is any power given to the legislature. All power is given to the State Board of Education elected by Michigan voters. So her actions are unlawful, even if she gets away with it.
And the Governor’s threat to close the entire school district if the school district does not agree to shut their only high school is bullying. Threatening more children is dishonorable. By copying the state record of only taking over and dismantling Black districts when white districts with very poor records have been untouched, her actions show the same racism that her predecessors practiced.
The people’s voices must now be heard to stop this injustice before it spreads.