MILWAUKEE – All high school students in Milwaukee are equal, but some are more equal than others when it comes to bus transportation, according to a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday.
St. Joan Antida, an all-girls Roman Catholic high school in Milwaukee, is suing Milwaukee Public Schools after the district refused to provide bus service to the school’s students. There are 70 students that should be receiving bus service from MPS, according to a release Wednesday from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, or WILL, the public interest law firm representing St. Joan Antida.
“We believe that because MPS is treating children at its high schools differently from children that attend private schools, they are in blatant violation of state law that requires those policies to be the same,” said WILL attorney CJ Szafir Wednesday.
State law requires public school districts to provide transportation for students attending private schools within the district. The exception is in districts that rely upon public transportation.
MPS does not provide bus transportation for most high school students unless they live more than two miles from public transportation. Instead, MPS requires high school students to use public transportation. However, students attending MPS citywide attendance high schools are provided bus service if they live more than two miles from the school itself.
St. Joan Antida is chartered by the Sisters of Charity of St. Joan Antida, is independent of the Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese, and has a citywide attendance area. The school has an enrollment of 143 students with about 87 percent of those students in the free-or-reduced lunch program, according to a press release from WILL. More than 90 percent of the students are minorities. More than 90 percent of St. Joan Antida graduates continue their education in pursuing either a two-year or four-year degree.
“We are going to court to ensure that these children have their rights protected,” Szafir said in a press release. “It is a shame that it has come to this point but (MPS) Superintendent (Darienne) Driver and MPS have been playing fast and loose with the transportation laws for years.”
An email from MPS spokeswoman Denise Callaway said the district would not comment on pending litigation.
Paul Gessner, principal of St. Joan Antida, told Wisconsin Watchdog Wednesday the school first reached out to MPS for transportation in April 2015. After the private school was led to believe that as a citywide school their students would be eligible to apply for bus transportation, MPS told St. Joan Antida in January 2016 that only one student qualified for bus transportation.
“It’s a hardship for many of our families,” said Gessner. “Without transportation it definitely impacts the choice of school that parents can select. The very first thing that we get asked is, ‘Is there a bus?’”
St. Joan Antida also participates in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the citywide private school voucher program. But Gessner said this isn’t about a voucher school taking money from public schools.
“If the law exists, and it’s supposed to benefit my students, then it’s really not public school money,” said Gessner. “It’s the money that belongs to educating kids and transporting kids.”
“There was an intent in creating that law. They just need to follow that law,” Gessner said.
Jim Bender, President of School Choice Wisconsin, agreed that the issue is separate from school choice.
“All families in Milwaukee pay property taxes through home ownership or rent,” Bender said in a statement Wednesday. “State law is clear that all students, regardless of sector, are to be treated equally with transportation services.”
After the request for bus transportation was rejected by MPS, St. Joan Antida and WILL sent a letter to Driver asking the district to provide transportation or provide a written explanation of the reason for denial.
“They refused to follow the law so we were forced to go to federal court to ensure that the rights of the children of St. Joan Antida are protected,” Szafir said.
Szafir said the lawsuit was filed in federal court because the plaintiffs have a strong constitutional claim.
“We believe the constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the law are being violated by Milwaukee Public Schools where they discriminate against children who attend private and religious schools by denying them transportation,” Szafir said.
State Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying, “It is a sad day when parents have to go to court to ensure their children have transportation to attend the school of their choice.”
“MPS should immediately heed SJA’s request to bus these students,” Strobel said. “After all, the students’ parents are property taxpayers in the district.”
James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson.