Bill Would Require Milwaukee to Sell Vacant Schools

Published September 25, 2013

MADISON — Vacant Milwaukee public school buildings would sit idle no more under a bill proposed by two Milwaukee-area lawmakers.

State Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) and Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis) introduced legislation to make old, empty school property in the Milwaukee Public School District available to “education operators who are willing to turn the underused buildings into quality schools,” according to a news release from Darling’s office.

The senator said Milwaukee Public Schools is “cheating school kids” in failing to sell idle buildings to charter, voucher, and other parent-choice schools in the city.

“Great schools make for great neighborhoods. They increase home values because people want to move to those areas and raise their families. Vacant buildings don’t help at all,” Darling said in the release. “That’s not fair to taxpayers and it’s not fair to the children and parents.”

Under the bill, a building would be eligible for sale if it was designated as surplus, underutilized, or vacant on any resolution adopted by the MPS board within the previous five years. To prove a building is still in use, MPS would have to staff it and utilize it to educate children.

Playing ‘Shell Games’
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a Milwaukee-based public interest law firm, recently called out MPS and the city of Milwaukee on the subject, charging the district with playing “shell games” and the city with violating the spirit of a 2011 state law that gave Milwaukee the power to sell idle buildings.

“MPS is preventing numerous charter schools and private schools in the choice program from purchasing empty, unused school buildings. In doing so, they are directly blocking thousands of children from attending a nearby, high-performing school,” said C. J. Szafir, WILL’s education policy director, in a statement released in September. “And the City—by ignoring its power to sell these buildings under Act 17—is equally culpable.”

An MPS official claimed WILL has made false or misleading claims, telling Wisconsin Reporter the law does not require MPS to sell buildings for which it has legitimate plans.

That’s where the dispute lies: Just how many buildings are eyed for use by the district or others, and how many remain empty on the taxpayer’s dime.

Szafir in a Sept. 5 article told Wisconsin Reporter MPS is sitting on 23 buildings that have no purpose, simply because the district doesn’t want to sell them to competing schools.

“MPS is allowing buildings to sit vacant and deteriorate which is costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars,” Sanfelippo said in the statement. “They are depriving kids of the possibility of going to school in their own neighborhood simply because they may not like who could be running the schools.”

The two lawmakers said they are seeking cosponsors for the bill to get it a fall vote.

This article is reprinted with permission. Image by David Fulmer.