Milwaukee stonewalling sales of unused schools, law firm says

By   /   September 5, 2013  /   No Comments

UPDATED 2:15 p.m., Sept. 6

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON – A complete failure.

That’s how the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty rates the City of Milwaukee’s policy of giving Milwaukee Public Schools the authority to sell or lease the district’s unused school buildings.

Beyond the failing grade, WILL, a conservative, public interest law firm based in Milwaukee, asserts 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.

“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,” said C.J. Szafir, WILL’s education policy director in a statement released Thursday.

“And the City – by ignoring its power to sell these buildings under Act 17 – is equally culpable.”

An MPS official charges WILL with making false or misleading claims, and tells Wisconsin Reporter the law does not require MPS to sell buildings it has legitimate plans for.

 

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NO SALE: The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty says the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Public Schools are not following the spirit of a state law that allows the city to sell unused school buildings.

WILL contends the school system has played 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,” the law firm wrote in its release.

The city and school district have been unapologetic about their approach.

“We’d be glad to make them available if (nontraditional schools) fix the way the (education) funding formula is funded,” Jennifer Gonda, director of intergovernmental relations for Milwaukee, told Wisconsin Reporter in April.

At the time, Gonda said Milwaukee had effectively frozen school building sales to school choice programs because the state’s general school aid formula reduces the mil portion of voucher students – more than 24,000 attending private schools in Milwaukee – and the property value is reduced again because students aren’t counted in the equalized value of the city’s property value. 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.”

As reported in the April story, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in 2011 urged the Legislature to pass Act 17.

The mayor assured that the city could market the 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.

In April, MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia sent Wisconsin Reporter 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 asserts that 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.

WILL contends there is high demand for the 23 unused school buildings in the district.

“(P)ractically every vacant school building could have a charter or private school in it – if MPS (or the City) was minimally cooperative,” the organization says.

Tagliavia in a follow-up email to Wisconsin Reporter asserts the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty report “ignores and omits critical facts and contains false claims about Milwaukee Public Schools and its buildings.”

The MPS spokesman contends WILL’s release:

 

  • Ignores that Milwaukee Public Schools has legitimate reuse purposes for a number of buildings, including expansion of successful MPS and charter schools. Among them: the expansion of highly-rated Golda Meir School into a former middle school property and a second campus for the successful Carmen High School of Science and Technology charter school. For 2013-14 alone, five previously-unused MPS buildings are back in service as schools.
  • Fails to recognize that MPS has sold buildings to high-performing charter schools including two to Milwaukee College Prep and one to Hmong American Peace Academy
  • Ignores that that MPS currently leases space to 11 charter/partnership schools
  • Falsely claims that MPS does not keep track of what is happening in its buildings. This statement is patently false. 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 writes in his email.

Szafir in a follow-up conversation says WILL stands by everything in its report, which is based on the records MPS provided to the law firm through an open records request. Szafir said WILL asked the district whether it had a central data base of information on the status of MPS’ buildings, but the organization was told real-time data would have cost WILL more than $7,000 to obtain. As it stood, the information provided was two years old, he said.

The fact remains, Szafir said, that there are more than 20 buildings that could serve “high-performing” non-district charter and choice schools, but the city and MPS are playing politics with the lives of school children. He calls the situation “government malpractice.”

“They’re trying to mislead the public from the main issue, and that is the fact that 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.”

WILL is calling on 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.”

Read the full report here

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M.D. Kittle