WILL Testifies at Senate Hearing

Today, WILL Education Policy Director, CJ Szafir, testified for informational purposes to the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Government Operations on the unused school building problem in Milwaukee.  The testimony was based on WILL’s two previous reports on the issue.  The full testimony can be found here.  A few of the main takeaways:

The City refuses to use its Act 17 power.  Even though the City asked for the ability to unilaterally sell its vacant school buildings, the City’s own policy in 2013 states that MPS must first designate unused buildings as “surplus” prior to them being sold.  This happened despite the fact that Milwaukee School Board President Michael Bonds stated that he would never sell school buildings to schools in the choice program because it would be like “asking the Coca-Cola company to turn over its facilities to Pepsi.”

City policy discriminates against choice schools.  For those buildings that MPS agrees to sell, the City’s policy prohibits the selling of unused school buildings to any private school in the choice program or “for profit” charter school.  This was, according to the City, due to the funding flaw.  However, since the 2013-2014 budget fixed the funding flaw, one would think choice schools can start purchasing the vacant buildings.  If this is true, we have not seen it yet.

City policy also places a permanent deed restriction on any school building sold in order to prevent future buyers from selling to private schools in the choice program.  These deed restrictions raise serious legal and constitutional questions.  A similar deed restriction policy on unused school buildings in Cincinnati was recently held to be unconstitutional by the Ohio Supreme Court.

MPS has no interest in selling its unused buildings.  Because the City has abdicated its power to MPS, we also made an open records request to MPS.  What we found were that high-performing charter and choice schools are still being blocked by MPS from purchasing empty, unused schools, even though there is substantial demand for these buildings.

Of the 19 or so buildings that are currently vacant (according to MPS), we have identified charter and choice school interest in purchasing nearly every single one.  In other words, practically every vacant school building could have a charter or private school in it – if MPS (or the City) would permit it.  For example, Woodlands School, an independent charter, has been in Milwaukee since 1936 and boasts strong test results – all eighth grade students achieved proficient or higher in reading, math, language, and science.  In July 2012, Woodlands, seeking to expand, sent MPS a letter of intent to purchase three vacant school buildings:  Dover (holds 452 students), 88th Street (334 students), or Hayes Elementary (280 students).  Then, on August 31, 2012, without any justification, MPS declined the offers.  These buildings still sit empty.

MPS responded to this claim by saying:  “Since 2011, MPS has sold four school buildings, including three to successful independent charter schools . . . and one that has been successfully redeveloped as senior housing.  Eleven charter or partnership schools are currently leasing MPS sites.”  We will acknowledge that over the last few years there has been some activity (though it has been to MPS affiliated schools).

But that’s the equivalent to a football team (we trust it would be the Bears) celebrating that they scored two touchdowns in a game – only to end up losing 55-14.  They want credit for the four buildings they have sold when at least 19 sit vacant right now.

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