By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — Vacant Milwaukee public school buildings would be idle no more under a bill proposed by two Milwaukee-area lawmakers.
State Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, on Monday introduced legislation to make old, empty school property in the Milwaukee Public School District available to “education operators who are willing to turn the underused buildings into quality schools, according to a news release issued by Darling’s office.
The senator said Milwaukee Public Schools are “cheating school kids” in failing to sell idle buildings to charter, voucher and other parental choice schools in the city.
“Great schools make for great neighborhoods. They increase home values because people want to move to those areas and raise their families. Vacant buildings don’t help at all,” Darling said in the release. “That’s not fair to taxpayer(s) and it’s not fair to the children and parents.”
The legislation closes loopholes that the lawmakers say MPS is using to prevent improved educational opportunities for Milwaukee students. Under the bill, a building will be eligible for sale if it was designated as surplus, underutilized, or vacant on any resolution adopted by the MPS board within the previous five years. To prove a building is still in use, MPS will have to actually staff it and utilize it to educate children.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, a Milwaukee-based conservative public interest law firm, recently called out MPS and the city of Milwaukee, charging the district with playing “shell games” and the city with violating the spirit of a 2011 state law that gave Milwaukee the power to sell 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 earlier this month.
“And the City — by ignoring its power to sell these buildings under Act 17 — is equally culpable.”
An MPS official countered that WILL has made false or misleading claims, and tells Wisconsin Reporter the law does not require MPS to sell buildings for which it has legitimate plans.
Among other points, MPS contends WILL “ignores that Milwaukee Public Schools has legitimate reuse purposes for a number of buildings, including expansion of successful MPS and charter schools.”
That’s where the dispute lies — just how many buildings are eyed for use by the district or others, and how many remain empty on the taxpayer’s dime.
WILL urged 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.”
Now, Darling and Sanfelippo say they want to push MPS and the city to act.
“MPS is allowing buildings to sit vacant and deteriorate which is costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars,” Sanfelippo said in the statement. “They are depriving kids of the possibility of going to school in their own neighborhood simply because they may not like who could be running the schools.”
The two lawmakers say will be seeking co-sponsors for the bill this week. Both sound hopeful the bill will be ready for a vote during the fall legislative session.
Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]