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Records request: What’s going on with vacant Milwaukee school buildings?

By   /   April 1, 2013  /   News  /   1 Comment

By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Hoping to determine the status of several idle Milwaukee public school properties, brought to light in part by a series of stories in Wisconsin Reporter, an open-government advocate has filed multiple open records requests with the city and Milwaukee Public Schools.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty — a Milwaukee-based nonprofit public interest law firm promoting the “public interest in constitutional and open government, individual liberty and a robust civil society” — filed the requests last week “on behalf of the taxpayers” to “find out what, if anything” the government entities are doing to solve the problem of unused and underutilized school buildings.

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OPEN UP: The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty has filed open records requests to find out if the city of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Public School District are moving to sell vacant school buildings.

MPS had 21 vacant school buildings as of the end of 2012, according to an analysis by Wisconsin Reporter reported in a September.

A study by the Pew Charitable Trust released earlier this year found the same number of idle buildings. The Pew study notes more than 300 empty school buildings in a dozen U.S. cities, including Milwaukee, costing taxpayers millions of dollars.

“This is something we’ve been following for a while,” said CJ Szafir, associate counsel and Education Policy director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. “It started with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (articles) back in 2010, and (Wisconsin Reporter) sparked a lot of people’s interest with your story last September.”

The problem is two-fold, according to Szafir: What WILL sees as the unnecessary cost to taxpayers, and the many Milwaukee children without access to nearby public schools who see abandoned or unused schools in their neighborhood.

Milwaukee school choice — particularly voucher school — advocates assert MPS isn’t meeting the spirit of a 2011 law, which gave the city of Milwaukee unilateral authority to sell school buildings that are empty longer than one year.

“The city has a policy in place not to make those (buildings) available to schools in Milwaukee’s Parental Choice program,” Terry Brown, vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, the Milwaukee-based advocacy group that supports parental rights in choosing the education of their children, told Wisconsin Reporter in February.

MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia did not return two phone calls from Wisconsin Reporter on Monday, but in an email earlier this year Tagliavia said that, since September, MPS had 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 had 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 … as well as attract high-performing charter operators,” Tagliavia added.

An official from MPS’ Facilities and Maintenance Services department in February told Wisconsin Reporter the department doesn’t keep a list of schools that are now closed because the list is always changing.

The Institute for Law & Liberty’s open records requests aim to “uncover the process that the city and MPS use to determine whether a school building is unused or underutilized,” according to the organization’s statement. “Then once the buildings become labeled as unused, what are the steps taken by the city to sell the property and to whom does it get sold to.”

Szafir said the law firm is looking at communications between MPS and the city.

“We hear from plenty of businesses, school leaders, people in the community and certainly taxpayers that MPS and the city are unwilling partners, that they create obstacles instead of trying to help get these vacant buildings sold, to put them together for good use,” Szafir said.

Pew Charitable Trust’s Emily Dowdall in February told Wisconsin Reporter 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 Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty says the issue boils down to accountability.

“The hardworking taxpayers of Milwaukee — and their children — deserve to know why there are so many vacant school buildings and what their government plans to do about it,” the organization said in its statement.

Contact M.D. Kittle at [email protected]

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M.D. Kittle is bureau chief of Wisconsin Watchdog and First Amendment Reporter for Watchdog.org. Kittle is a 25-year veteran of print, broadcast and online media. He is the recipient of several awards for journalism excellence from The Associated Press, Inland Press, the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association, and others. He is also a member of Investigative Reporters & Editors. Kittle's extensive series on Wisconsin's unconstitutional John Doe investigations was the basis of a 2014 documentary on Glenn Beck's TheBlaze. His work has been featured in Town Hall, Fox News, NewsMax, and other national publications, and his reporting has been cited by news outlets nationwide. Kittle is a fill-in talk show host on the Jay Weber Show and the Vicki McKenna Show in Milwaukee and Madison.

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