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Voucher school wants to buy unused building; Milwaukee schools won’t sell

By   /   December 1, 2015  /   News  /   No Comments

Risen Savior Evangelical Lutheran School and Fletcher Elementary School are only three blocks apart, but they couldn’t be more different.

Risen Savior, a high-performing K-8 school in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, grew rapidly once it opened in 2003 at the northwestern edge of Milwaukee. With almost 250 students, it has been filled to capacity for years and has a waiting list.

But the school has little room to expand its building.

Milwaukee Public Schools closed Fletcher in 2010 because of dwindling enrollment.

“It would be very easy for us to use Fletcher’s building,” Risen Savior Principal Robert Dusseau told Wisconsin Watchdog. “Finding students to fill the extra space wouldn’t be a problem.”

Risen Savior has submitted a letter of interest to the Milwaukee City Clerk’s office indicating its desire to buy Fletcher.

Selling a closed school to a nearby school with more students than classroom space seems logical, but Dusseau isn’t overly optimistic about logic prevailing.

“This is our third attempt to buy Fletcher,” Dusseau said. “The first two attempts, in 2009 and 2012, went nowhere.”

“That’s not surprising,” C.J. Szafir told Wisconsin Watchdog.

photo courtesy of Risen Savior Evangelical Lutheran School

PLENTY OF STUDENTS, LITTLE SPACE: Risen Savior Evangelical Lutheran School’s reputation as a high-performing choice school means there are always more students it could serve if it had more space.

Szafir, associate counsel and director of education policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, has studied the problem of Milwaukee’s large inventory of empty public school buildings since 2012.

“MPS has been very concerned about the expansion of successful and high-performing charter and choice schools and the effect that has on its enrollment figures. So it has tried to inhibit the expansion of those schools by doing everything it can to block the sale of its surplus buildings to charter and choice schools,” Szafir said.

The steady refusal of MPS and the city to sell the surplus school building resulted in the Wisconsin Legislature passing a new law requiring Milwaukee to place unused and underused school buildings up for sale.

According to the law, any building that “has been unused or satisfies any condition qualifying the building as an underutilized school building for a period of 12 consecutive months” should be sold.

“Fletcher seems to fit the definition of an unused building, or at least an underutilized one. It hasn’t had a student in it since July 2010,” Dusseau said.

RELATED: Milwaukee finds new way to delay selling empty school buildings

MPS disagrees. It designated Fletcher a “district support facility” in 2013.

Asked what that means, MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia explained, “The building is currently used for staging and storage, which is at this time the most cost-effective option for the district.”

Describing using Fletcher to store spare classroom furniture as “cost-effective” seems strange considering the district has spent more than $106,000 on maintenance at the closed school since 2012.

According to Tagliavia, MPS has plans for Fletcher — beyond using it for storage.

“Fletcher is part of an active expansion plan as identified in the Regional Development Plan concept,” Tagliavia told Wisconsin Watchdog via email.

The plan calls for a feasibility study in regard to re-opening Fletcher as “a new MPS engagement center.”

“I’m not entirely sure what that means,” Dusseau said. “But I do know that this is one of the three most underserved zip codes in Milwaukee when it comes to schools.”

“Fletcher probably isn’t in the best of shape, but it is a usable building that would allow us to serve more kids quickly and easily. Opening it again as a school could also have a very positive effect on the entire neighborhood, which has seen a real decline over the years.

Watchdog photo

NO SALE: Fletcher Elementary School was closed in 2010 but MPS claims it isn’t a surplus building.

“But I’m not sure who we appeal to, if MPS continues to claim Fletcher isn’t unused or underutilized. We’re in uncharted waters,” Dusseau said.

“The law isn’t as clear as it should be, but it is clear that buildings like Fletcher meet the criteria for what should be sold,” Szafir said.

“If MPS insists on playing games, it could lead to legal action.”

Dusseau is reluctant to discuss that.

“I don’t think our congregation would be interested in pursuing a lawsuit,” Dusseau said.

Asked what would happen if this third attempt to buy Fletcher met with the same fate as the first two, Dusseau replied, “I’m not sure we would expand.”

“That would be a shame, because there are so many more children we could serve.”

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Paul formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.