Well-Funded Benton Harbor Schools Received 28% More Money Than State Average
District’s $13,098 per pupil in the top tier of school funding
The Benton Harbor school district has run up an $18.3 million debt by overspending its annual revenue since 2006-07, triggering a crisis and presenting Gov. Gretchen Whitmer with her first challenge in the area of local government financial failure. Whitmer has called for officials to close the district’s single high school, whose alumni include the comedian Sinbad and several professional athletes.
Although Benton Harbor Area Schools is among the state’s most highly funded districts, one Democratic state official pins its accumulated debt on a lack of funding.
Tiffany Tilley, a member of the Michigan State Board of Education, recently wrote an op-ed in Bridge Magazine, asserting that inadequate state funding deserves some of the blame for the district’s financial woes.
“Benton Harbor has requested adequate resources from the state to help educate the children of that district. It is failing, and the state needs to take responsibility for its part,” Tilley wrote. “The way that we currently fund schools in Michigan under Proposal A is failing them - it still leaves holes in the bucket. Until the holes are filled our schools will continue to decay, and our children, the children of this state, will continue to suffer. ... The issues that have led up to Benton Harbor’s current state are largely due to inequitable funding.”
Financial data from the Michigan Department of Education undermines Tilley’s claim, however.
Benton Harbor Area Schools received $13,098 per pupil in 2017-18, including revenue from local, state and federal sources. The figure only includes general fund money that is used to pay for daily operational expenses, such as teacher salaries. The average Michigan school district received $10,190 per pupil in general fund money in 2017-18.
Benton Harbor had 1,941 students in 2018-19, of which 83% were considered “economically disadvantaged” under federal guidelines.
Benton Harbor’s funding is higher than that of many districts because it receives extra money from state and federal governments to help cover the costs of having so many students from low-income households.
For example, Benton Harbor received $2,399 per pupil in federal aid in 2017-18. St. Joseph Public Schools, located in the more affluent city next door to Benton Harbor, received just $71 per pupil in federal aid. That’s one reason why Benton Harbor schools received $3,826 more per pupil than St. Joseph in 2017-18.
The amount of overspending debt that Benton Harbor Area Schools has accumulated is equal to 67% of the district's $27.2 million general fund budget for 2017-18.