MPS and the City Ignore State Law

Based on a MPS open records request, WILL concludes that the City of Milwaukee’s policy of giving Milwaukee Public Schools the authority to designate and sell or lease its unused school buildings is a failure and violates the spirit of state law, 2011 Act 17.  Click here for the full report. 

CJ Szafir, WILL’s Education Policy Director, explains:  “Our report shows that 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.  And the City – by ignoring its power to sell these buildings under Act 17 – is equally culpable.”  Some of the report’s findings include:

1.     MPS plays a “shell game” with its unused property.  In February 2011, MPS listed 28 buildings as surplus, i.e. vacant buildings that are for sale.  However, in April 2013, MPS told WILL that only 4 buildings were surplus.  Had MPS sold or leased 24 buildings in the intervening two years?  Apparently not.  Another chart, circulated internally in March 2013, showed that at least 23 buildings were still vacant and, besides the 4, were not on the market (see Exhibit B in report).  While MPS brags about leasing a few buildings, it does not excuse its negligence for the rest.

2.   There is a huge demand for these unused school buildings.  Of the 23 or so school buildings that are apparently vacant, we have identified charter and choice school interest in purchasing or leasing nearly every single building.  In other words, practically every vacant school building could have a charter or private school in it – if MPS (or the City) was minimally cooperative.  Many of these schools are high-performing.  For example:

  1. St. Marcus, a private school in the choice program, wanted to purchase Garfield, Malcolm X, or Lee Elementary in October 2012.  The City’s response was an emphatic no and told them to “join the City of Milwaukee in lobbying vigorously for repair of the [funding] formula” (see Exhibit C in report).  Last week, St. Marcus made another attempt for Malcolm X – but was told that MPS, for several years, had plans to turn it into a Community Center.  But we know that this is simply not true.  In 2012, MPS was clearly showing the building to school operators with no mention that it was not available.
  2. Milwaukee College Prep (MCP), a charter school, inquired about buying Malcolm X and Edison.  MPS declined.  MCP also wanted to buy Green Bay school.  However, MPS said it was not on the market – and then immediately sold Green Bay to someone else.

Consequently, MPS’ refusal to sell empty, unused buildings – and the City in enabling MPS – violates the spirit of state law.  Under Act 17, the Common Council can sell or lease school buildings if a building has been unused or underutilized for at least 12 consecutive months (including the 12 months prior to passage).  In other words, the City has complete control over the selling of school buildings.  Instead, the City of Milwaukee ignored the legislature’s request to sell the buildings.  It passed policies that explicitly prohibited private schools in the choice program from purchasing the buildings.  And it has enabled MPS to stonewall, frustrate, and prevent charter and choice schools from buying or leasing unused school buildings.

WILL calls upon the City of Milwaukee to use the power the legislature gave it by immediately placing every vacant and unneeded school building on the market and allowing choice and charter schools to have a fair opportunity to purchase these buildings.

The full report can be found here.  To access the Exhibits separately:  Exhibit A:  City of Milwaukee’s Policy of Disposition of MPS Property, Exhibit B:  MPS Disposition of Vacant Facilities Chart (March 2013), Exhibit C:  City to St. Marcus letter, Exhibit D:  Milwaukee College Prep to Superintendent Gregory Thornton, Exhibit E:  Deed Restriction.

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