By Ryan Ekvall │ Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — School bells ring, locker doors open and slam shut, parents breathe a sigh of relief and teachers say a silent prayer for patience as students fill the hallways and classrooms of schools vacated over summer recess.
This scene played out all over Wisconsin this week as hundreds of thousands of students head back to school.
The exception is in the 21 Milwaukee Public School buildings, which continue to stand vacant — save the few maintenance workers and electricians who walk the buildings — the way they have for more than a year, according to information obtained by Wisconsin Reporter. [correction: 17 of the 21 vacant MPS buildings have been vacant for more than one year.]
While some legislators lobby for additional funds for MPS, all that emptiness costs taxpayers around $1 million annually, and one state lawmaker believes MPS isn’t parting with the buildings in order to box out choice schools.
In June 2011, Gov. Scott Walker signed a law that allowed the city of Milwaukee to sell or lease vacant school buildings held by MPS, which previously held a deed restriction, preventing the buildings from being used as schools that were not part of MPS. Under the law, MPS retains the authority to sell or lease its buildings, as well.
“Because it passed in June of last year, we thought heading into this school year these buildings would be available,” said Jim Bender, president of School Choice, which promotes alternatives to the state’s public education system. “I would have hoped — on a timeline basis — it would have been completed by now, but, then again, this is government.”
Since June 2011, the city hasn’t sold or leased a single vacant school building. Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines Jr., who strongly lobbied for the law change in the Legislature, did not return repeated calls seeking comment as to why the city has yet to act on its new authority.
MPS has sold two buildings for approximately $1.2 million each, according to MPS.
MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia said more schools could be sold or used by charter schools.
“Four are currently on the market (Milwaukee School of Entrepreneurship, Carleton, Coggs, Central del Nino). We have letters of intent to purchase a number of other buildings beyond the four,” Tagliavia wrote in an email to Wisconsin Reporter. He did not provide price information about these buildings.
“We have approved five new charter schools for 2013-14 that will be housed among the remaining buildings we still own. And lastly, we do own buildings that are no longer suitable for occupancy,” Tagliavia wrote. He did not provide the locations of these buildings.
Tagliavia gave examples of several previously vacant school buildings — including the new Howard Avenue Montessori School and Golda Meir High School — reopening soon.
“We do not close buildings as a cost-saving effort; we have done it in the past to best match our student population with our facilities — specifically examining under-enrolled and/or underperforming buildings for closure,” he emailed.
The new law requires funds from sold or leased buildings to be applied to the Milwaukee schools operations fund, which would ostensibly reduce the tax burden on Milwaukee residents. School officials did not indicate if the money from the two sold buildings went into this fund. [correction: Funds from buildings sold by the city must be applied towards the school operations fund. Funds from buildings sold by MPS are applied to the school construction fund.]
Milwaukee Public Schools spends the fourth most per pupil among large metropolitan areas in the country, at more than $14,000 per student, but lawmakers have lobbied for more.
State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, for example, recently chastised the current Republican-led biennial budget and School Choice programs for reducing state aid coming into MPS.
“We’re hit pretty hard in Milwaukee. We have a funding flaw that hits my community in the public schools,” he said at a Senate Education and Corrections Committee hearing last week.
Larson did not respond to requests for comment.
State Sen. Glenn Grothman, R-West Bend, said MPS should sell off its vacant buildings, rather than ask for more money.
“The teacher union-dominated Milwaukee school board is paying to maintain empty buildings and then has the nerve to ask the state for more money,” Grothman told Wisconsin Reporter. “They don’t get rid of them because they’re afraid if they sell them somehow a choice school is going to buy them.”
Bender said the city was creating a process to talk with parties interested in occupying the empty school buildings.
“There are certainly a number of (Choice) schools that have expansion in their short- or long-term plans,” said Bender, noting vacated MPS schools as possible sites of expansion. “For some schools it depends on financing, retrofitting the building, zoning, if the building is up to code – there are specific building-by-building cases, which is why the sooner the better.”
Contact Ryan Ekvall at firstname.lastname@example.org.