By Ryan Ekvall | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON — More than 300 empty school buildings stand vacant in a dozen U.S. cities, costing taxpayers millions of dollars, according to a study by the Pew Charitable Trust.
But the costs of publicly funded idle buildings to taxpayers and society at large are much more pronounced, contend Milwaukee school-choice advocates, who contend they are being shut out of the public school buyers’ market.
Milwaukee Public Schools was among a dozen city school districts nationwide that has shuttered more than 20 schools in the past decade, the study found.
“MPS did not want to dispose of schools,” Emily Dowdall of Pew Charitable Trust told Wisconsin Reporter. “They used to have a policy of mothballing sites for a year until they tried to sell them.”
Dowdall said the cost of maintaining those empty buildings, along with the depreciation and the blighting effects on their neighborhoods, have forced MPS to think differently.
So has legislation.
A law passed in July 2011 gave the city of Milwaukee unilateral authority to sell school buildings that are empty longer than one year.
Although the city hasn’t acted on that new-found power, Dowdall said the law will force MPS to be more aggressive in selling empty school buildings.
“Economic pressures felt by various districts have made the transfer of properties to charters increasingly appealing, particularly in situations in which other potential occupants have not emerged,” Dowdall wrote in the study.
According to Pew, 42 percent of vacated school buildings sales are to charter schools. Another 12 percent are for other educational purposes, such as private schools or universities.
“It took them a while to realize that given all the downsides of keeping buildings empty, it was worth moving faster even though it might end up in hands of charter,” Dowdall said.
But school-choice advocates in Milwaukee say MPS isn’t meeting the spirit of the law, charging the district with refusing to sell to a viable education competitor.
“The city has a policy in place not to make those (buildings) available to schools in Milwaukee’s Parental Choice program,” said Terry Brown, vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, the Milwaukee-based advocacy group that supports parental rights in choosing the education of their children.
MPS had 21 vacant school buildings as of the end of 2012, according to Pew, the same figure Wisconsin Reporter reported in a September.
Not only are taxpayers footing the bill for idle buildings that could be put to educational use, Brown said, the properties that aren’t being maintained cost the taxpayer in lost value.
An official from MPS’ Facilities and Maintenance Services department told Wisconsin Reporter the department doesn’t keep a list of schools that are now closed because the list is always changing.
MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia, in an email to Wisconsin Reporter, said since September MPS has leased three school buildings to charter school operators who expect to open schools in the buildings this fall. He said the district also is “executing the sale of the building that once housed Morse Middle School to a charter school that has been leasing the building.” And two additional building leases are in the pipeline, Tagliavia said.
The district also has transferred two MPS buildings to the city for government use, and another four properties to the city for sale.
“We have seen increased interest in our buildings from charter school operators as they understand that we have an interest in utilizing our facilities for providers that want to charter with MPS and duplicate their highly successful programs in Milwaukee or develop a new program based on a highly successful model,” the MPS spokesman said.
“As we seek to continue to compete in the educational marketplace in Milwaukee, we will continue to look to expand our own successful MPS-operated schools — see our use of the former MEC building for a Golda Meir expansion, use of WCLL’s former home for the expanding Garland School, the opening of the Howard Avenue Montessori School in the former Tippecanoe building — as well as attract high-performing charter operators,” Tagliavia added.
Brown said the city and the district have told school choice advocates they won’t entertain the idea of selling idle buildings to parental choice schools until the state reimburses MPS for the lost per-pupil aid diverted to choice education centers. Brown, too, contends, the city has enacted zoning that effectively keeps parental choice schools out.
He said MPS is rapidly losing its market share, about 1,500 students per year and, consequently, its source of revenue.
“You have to imagine that this is a pretty significant cost to the taxpayers to maintain,” Brown said of the vacant school buildings. “MPS was built out for about 120,000 kids. It’s a little over 80,000 at this point.”
Pew’s Dowdall said the savings of closing empty school buildings often comes in at less than $1 million per year, small for the total budget of a district such as MPS. But when every dollar counts, that’s money being spent on something other than educating children.
“The cost of shutting down the schools and moving kids are a one-time cost. The operational costs are ongoing,” Dowdall said.
Meanwhile, choice schools in Milwaukee have seen significant growth over the past 20 years.
What began as a few private religious schools serving a couple hundred public school children in inner-city Milwaukee has swelled to scores of schools reaching nearly 25,000 students — the vast majority among the poorest of the poor.
Unloading old school buildings isn’t a money-making proposition.
Most school districts have settled on prices far less than what they expected to retrieve, according to the Pew report.
Other cities, such as Chicago, plan to restrict the future growth of charter schools. Philadelphia’s governing School Reform Commission gave itself the power to restrict charter expansion as well, according to the Pew report.
The Pew study ranks Milwaukee seventh in the number of empty school buildings. Detroit led the dubious list with 124 empty buildings, followed by St. Louis with 39.
Contact Ryan Ekvall at [email protected]