MUSKEGON HEIGHTS, Mich. (WOOD) — Muskegon Heights public schools and Benton Harbor Area Schools are both expected to have millions of dollars’ worth of debt forgiven by the state.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is expected to sign House Bill 4292, which was passed by lawmakers earlier this month. The supplemental spending bill includes $114 million to forgive debt for five current school districts and one former school district.
Benton Harbor Area Schools would get $10 million from the state. State Rep. Joey Andrews, D-St. Joseph, said the school district has been slated for closure multiple times over the last few decades. Its debt has prevented the community from investing in its schools.
“They have boilers that are 70 years old in need of replacement,” Andrews said. “They’re unable to provide heat for students sitting through Michigan winters. They have school classrooms that have been incapable of being used. They’ve had issues over the last several years retaining teachers because they can’t pay them as well as neighboring school districts do.”
Muskegon Heights Public School Academy System owes the state more than $30 million. The district has struggled with the debt for more than a decade.
The school district entered into a charter agreement in 2012 until its debt was paid off.
Last September, staff told News 8 that Muskegon Heights Academy only had seven certified teachers, who were stretched to their limit covering more than 200 students. It got to the point that students protested outside the building.
But now, the state would forgive up to $31 million of the district’s debt. The district’s new superintendent has said it could result in the end of the charter system and a return to a traditional public school model.
In addition, Inkster Schools would receive $12.1 million while Ypsilanti Community Schools would get $5.5 million. The Pontiac City School District would receive $18.3 million, and the former Willow Run Community Schools would get nearly $20 million to pay off outstanding bonds and what remains of its school loan revolving fund.
Andrews argues that forgiving school districts’ debt can help kids across Michigan prosper.
“I would ask everybody to consider what you think a school could do with half a million dollars a year every single year,” he said. “That could be hiring teachers, that could be rebuilding schools, new athletic facilities.”
School districts must make changes in order to get the money. That includes developing plans to retain teachers, increasing graduation rates and upping attendance. The school board must perform training at least three times a year focused on managing the school district’s finances.
The state treasury department will oversee the distribution of the money. The bill still needs a signature from the governor before it can go forward.
“We will be righting a wrong that has been sitting on the books since emergency management,” Andrews said. “We’re going to be giving this community, and many other communities like it, a fresh start.”