Benton Harbor leaders celebrate school debt forgiveness

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. -- A bill sits on Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s desk, waiting to be signed, that will forgive $12 million of debt for Benton Harbor Area Schools. 

It will forgive a total of $114 million in school debt across the Mitten State. 

Benton Harbor Area Schools will get $10 million of outstanding debt relief. This is debt from long-term loans, which would have cost the district $12 million, simply because of interest.

“None of this would be possible for Benton Harbor... so many school districts in Michigan, saddled with unfair debt, if not for organizers," said Berrien County Commissioner Chokwe Pitchford. 

ABC57 reached out to the district spokesperson to ask how they got into debt in the first place. We’re told the debt came from several emergency loans, but the specific context wasn’t clear. 

Democratic State Rep. Joey Andrews was one of the leaders spearheading the debt forgiveness effort.

"The first Democrat since the Civil Rights Act to get elected in Berrien County,” Pitchford said. “And what did he do in his first year in office? He got $12 million forgiven for the Benton Harbor school district."

"Schools are monuments in our community,” Andrews said. “They stand as a testament to what we want to see in our society: education, a better life for our children, a leg up."

But Andrews credits one organizer for really pushing the efforts forward—Trustee Elnora Gavin.

"No matter how much of a proud tiger I thought I was, if we cannot seal the debt trap, we will continue to lose our neighborhood schools,” she said. “From there, I did the research and created a petition that urged our state government to forgive our debt so that our staff and students can learn and teach in peace."

Superintendent Dr. Kelvin Butts said with the debt forgiven, they can now offer more opportunities to students and staff.

“Number one, bring back some academic programs that were taken away because of the lack of finances. Number two, making sure we have qualified, certified staff, more qualified, certified staff, and number three, making sure our facilities are brought back up to par,” he said. 

And as the bill sits on Gov. Whitmer’s desk to be signed, he said plans for improvements are already underway. 

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