MADISON – The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty rates the City of Milwaukee a failure for its policy of giving Milwaukee Public Schools the authority to sell or lease the district’s unused school buildings.
WILL, a conservative public interest law firm based in Milwaukee, asserts in a report the school district is playing “shell games” and the city is violating the spirit of a 2011 state law that gave Milwaukee the power to move idle buildings.
“MPS is preventing numerous charter schools and private schools in the choice program from purchasing empty, unused school buildings,… directly blocking thousands of children from attending a nearby, high-performing school,” said C. J. Szafir, WILL’s education policy director, in a statement.
An MPS official said the law does not require MPS to sell buildings for which it has legitimate plans.
In February 2011, MPS listed 28 buildings as vacant and for sale. In April 2013, it told WILL it had only four vacant buildings for sale. An internal chart circulated in March 2013 showed the reduction wasn’t due to sales or use, marking at least 23 buildings still vacant and not on the market, WILL says.
Holding Schools Hostage
The city and school district have been unapologetic about their approach.
“We’d be glad to make them available if [the state government] fix[es] the way the [education] funding formula is funded,” said Jennifer Gonda, director of intergovernmental relations for the city of Milwaukee.
Gonda said Milwaukee has effectively frozen school building sales to choice schools because the state’s general school aid formula reduces taxable property by the proportion of voucher students—there are more than 24,000 in Milwaukee. Gonda said the formula artificially inflates property values, making it seem Milwaukee’s property base is wealthier than it is, which costs the city about $50 million per year.
“It creates a double deduction in school aid. We believe that is an inequitable way to fund schools,” she said in April. “We have the average property taxpayer paying nearly $200 a year more to support that. In an age where the economy and the financial needs of residents is pretty tight, we believe that additional $200 is asking too much.”
In 2011, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett urged the legislature to give the city the ability to sell school buildings, assuring it could market idle or underutilized properties to “high quality, nontraditional schools who are interested in the properties.” He declared such schools, presumably including rapidly growing parental choice voucher schools and for-profit charter schools, were “shut out” of purchasing or leasing public school properties.
Depends Who Asks
In April, MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia sent an updated list of building sales, leases, and reuse projects. The district sold four properties between July 2011 and April 2013, while 13 other properties were being leased.
But WILL says when it comes to choice and non-MPS charter schools, MPS “can be difficult.”
“In June 2012, for example, a private school asked for a chart of all the unused schools that might be available to purchase. MPS replied that there are none on the market,” the law firm states in its release. The firm believes “practically every vacant school building” could be occupied if MPS were inclined to sell or lease.
In a follow-up email, Tagliavia asserted the WILL report “ignores and omits critical facts and contains false claims.” The MPS spokesman contends the report:
- Ignores that MPS has legitimate reuse purposes for a number of buildings, including expansion of successful MPS and charter schools. In 2013-14, five previously-unused MPS buildings are back in service as schools.
- Fails to recognize MPS has sold buildings to high-performing charter schools including two to Milwaukee College Prep and one to Hmong American Peace Academy
- Ignores MPS currently leases space to 11 charter/partnership schools
- Falsely claims MPS does not keep track of what is happening in its buildings. He stated Milwaukee Public Schools has a Facilities Master Plan that contains, in great detail, information about all of its buildings.
“MPS’ building decisions are made in the best interest of all taxpayers and families in the community, not in the interest of any particular school or advocacy group,” Tagliavia wrote.
Szafir said WILL stands by everything in its report, which is based on MPS records the law firm obtained through an open records request. Szafir said WILL asked the district whether it had a central database of information on the status of MPS buildings, but the organization was told real-time data would cost WILL more than $7,000 to obtain. The information provided was two years old, he said.
More than 20 buildings could serve “high-performing” non-district charter and choice schools, but the city and MPS are playing politics with the lives of school children, Szafir said. He calls the situation “government malpractice.”
“They are sitting on 23 buildings that have no purpose,” Szafir said. “These buildings clearly are in demand by choice schools in Milwaukee, and it would result in thousands of children in the city of Milwaukee having access to high-performing schools. And taxpayers would have relief from $1.2 million in maintenance costs, and the [proceeds] of the sale of those schools would go to MPS.”