By Adam Tobias | Wisconsin Reporter
MILWAUKEE, Wis. – Wisconsin taxpayers have been forced to spend millions of dollars to take care of empty Milwaukee Public Schools buildings the district refuses to sell to choice school operators.
MPS’ 15 vacant structures, some of which have been unused for close to a decade, are costing state and local taxpayers approximately $711,000 per year in utility and maintenance expenses.
Wisconsin Reporter did a study of the 10 largest school districts in the state and found that, compared to Milwaukee, the nine others have a combined total of just five idle buildings, costing taxpayers about $83,000 a year.
MPS spokesman Anthony Tagliavia partly attributes that difference to the Milwaukee district having the biggest facility inventory and the greatest number of students.
But dwindling enrollment also is undoubtedly playing a role.
MPS, which consists of numerous low-performing schools, has seen its student population drop from 92,395 in 2005-06 to an estimated 78,599 in 2013-14, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
MPS has been blocking several charter and private schools in the choice program from buying nearly every one of its unused facilities, an investigation conducted by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty has revealed.
“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,” WILL Education Policy Director C.J. Szafir says in his report.
WILL also charges that Milwaukee’s policy of giving MPS the authority to designate and sell or lease its surplus properties violates the spirit of 2011’s Act 17, a state law that authorizes the common council to pursue such deals if a complex has been unused or underutilized for at least 12 consecutive months.
All of MPS’ vacant facilities have been empty more than a year, and more than 66 percent have been unused since 1997.
Some MPS board members have said it doesn’t make sense to sell those buildings to choice schools, even if taxpayers are left on the hook for millions of dollars.
“It’s like asking the Coca-Cola Company to turn over its facilities to Pepsi so Pepsi can expand and compete with the Coca-Cola Company,” board president Michael Bonds told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
But other school districts don’t seem to be having a problem with surplus facilities.
The Madison Metropolitan School District, the state’s second largest school system with just less than 27,100 students, has no empty buildings, which spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson credits to steady enrollment.
School districts in Green Bay, Appleton, Waukesha and Janesville also have no idle complexes.
The Racine Unified School District has two vacant buildings, with one used for storage for more than 15 years. The other has been empty for less than a year.
School districts in Kenosha, Eau Claire and Sheboygan each have one unoccupied facility.
Two of those structures have been closed for less than two years. The one in Eau Claire has been empty for about four years.
Even though taxpayers are getting the short end of the stick in Milwaukee County, Tagliavia said MPS is making progress.
The district recently has reused 10 facilities to grow MPS-run schools, leased 11 sites and sold four properties, according to Tagliavia.
MPS also is in the middle of dealing with one of its unused buildings in a deal that state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo, R-West Allis, has said “stinks to high heaven.”
The Milwaukee Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee last month backed a proposal that would allow MPS to sell the former Malcolm X Academy to the development firm of 2760 Holdings LLC for $2.1 million.
The developer is looking to demolish half of the property for retail space and housing and renovate the rest of the building for a community center for MPS.
MPS would lease the facility for 50 months for $4.2 million, and then potentially buy the school portion back for $1.
School officials say they are hoping to break even on the project because the difference between the sale price and the leasing fees would be used for the renovations.
MPS staff, the Milwaukee City Attorney’s office and the developer are working on the documentation to close on the building, Tagliavia said.
But MPS could actually make money if it sold the complex to St. Marcus Lutheran School.
St. Marcus Superintendent Henry Tyson has told Wisconsin Reporter his school has reached out to MPS on several occasions to try to buy the facility in cash for its “fair market value,” which he says is easily more than $1 million.
St. Marcus also would invest an additional $4 million to $7 million in building improvements.
“None of that would be a taxpayer expense,” Tyson said. “It would all be privately funded.”
Contact Adam Tobias at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Scoop_Tobias