Milwaukee Zoning Board Denies Permit for School for At-Risk Boys

Published November 16, 2016

The Milwaukee, Wisconsin Board of Zoning Appeals denied a permit request by a school whose students primarily use vouchers to attend.

Right Step is “a choice military school that specializes in working with youth displaying ‘at-risk’ behaviors,” its website states. Citing potential traffic problems, the zoning board denied Right Step a special-use permit in October to open an all-boys campus in a vacant Milwaukee Public Schools building.

“Right Step Inc. enrolled about 154 students in fifth through 12th grade last year,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. “All but a few attend the school with a taxpayer-funded voucher. Right Step wanted to open a boys-only campus for up to 140 students in the vacant Riverwest building, which had been built as a bank and zoned for business.”

The zoning board members’ unanimous vote to deny the permit “drew applause from Riverwest neighbors and public-school advocates in the audience who opposed the voucher school’s expansion,” reported the Journal Sentinel.

City ‘Playing Games’

CJ Szafir, vice president for policy and deputy counsel at the Wisconsin Institute of Law and Liberty, served as Right Step’s legal counsel. Szafir says city officials are deliberately blocking choice schools.

“Because of the growth of the Milwaukee parental rights program and declining populations in the city, the enrollment for Milwaukee Public Schools has plummeted,” Szafir said. “That has led to, over the course of five to 10 years, an abundance of vacant school buildings that are just sitting empty. Not surprisingly, as private schools in the choice program and charter schools have wanted to expand, what they look to is a vacant, empty school buildings.

“The City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Public Schools have long played games, putting as many road blocks as they possibly can, preventing these schools from expanding,” Szafir said. “Essentially, what the City of Milwaukee does is horde empty school buildings instead of selling them to charter and private schools.”

City Breaking the Law?

Szafir says city officials are essentially breaking the law in denying the permit.

“The Wisconsin State Legislature and the governor, in the budget, put a provision that essentially forced the City of Milwaukee to sell these buildings to choice and charter schools,” Szafir said. “The law was implemented about a year ago, and Right Step was one of the schools that wanted to take advantage of this new law.”

For Teachers or Kids?

Jim Bender, president of School Choice Wisconsin, says Milwaukee officials are doing the bidding of the public school lobby in opposition to students and taxpayers.

“[Milwaukee Public Schools] is doing everything they can to maintain as many students in the district as they can,” Bender said. “If they actually followed the law and released the building to a school in the voucher program, they would potentially lose their market share of students, so they are not going to do that.

“Right Step is very much an alternative school,” Bender said. “It is a military school. It is very discipline-oriented, and it isn’t for everybody. A large percentage of the students that are in Right Step are those who have been permanently expelled from Milwaukee Public Schools. People that are supporting trying to block Right Step from getting this school, they never asked the question, ‘Where are these kids supposed to go?’

“Milwaukee has the largest racial gap on graduation rates in the country,” Bender said. “And you have people who are only concerned about the adults in the system, trying to block a school that is literally designed to help those who are the worst off in the district to achieve a high school diploma or GED. They are more concerned about the teachers than the kids.”

Michael McGrady ([email protected]) writes from Colorado Springs, Colorado.