By M.D. Kittle | Wisconsin Reporter
MADISON – In January 2011, just as one of the most tumultuous sessions of the Wisconsin Legislature was getting underway, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett wrote an urgent letter to state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills.
Barrett begged the lawmaker to push forward legislation that would transfer control of vacant and underutilized Milwaukee Public Schools real estate to the city of Milwaukee.
The mayor described the sad state of affairs in some Milwaukee neighborhoods, where “once thriving parts of their communities now sit barren and quiet.”
What the city needed, Barrett wrote, was a law that would allow the city to “take a more holistic approach to the management of these assets by addressing the needs and concerns of neighborhoods where buildings stand vacant as well as better meeting the educational needs of our community.”
To that end, the mayor assured that the city could market the idle or underutilized properties to “high quality, nontraditional schools who are interested in the properties.” He declared such schools, presumably including rapidly growing parental choice voucher schools and for-profit charter schools, were “shut out” of purchasing or leasing public school properties.
“The city can quickly put surplus real estate into use for non-education purposes to meet community needs such as senior housing or a community culture center,” Barrett wrote. “In other cases, the city may determine that the best use for a site is continued educational use by high-performing non-MPS schools.”
The Democratic mayor’s pleas were answered by a Republican-controlled Legislature a few months later with the passage of Act 17. The law gives the city of Milwaukee the ability to sell or lease unused or underutilized school buildings, ending the previous requirement of MPS approval. Barrett and the city, it seemed, got everything they wanted.
Two years later, the city that promised to “quickly put surplus real estate into use” has struggled to deliver, and contrary to the mayor’s concerns about nontraditional schools being “shut out” of the market, the city, it turns out, flatly refuses to sell to private voucher or for-profit charter schools.
“We’d be glad to make them available if (nontraditional schools) fix the way the (education) funding formula is funded,” Jennifer Gonda, director of intergovernmental relations for Milwaukee told Wisconsin Reporter.
Milwaukee has effectively frozen school building sales to school choice programs because the state’s general school aid formula reduces the mil portion of voucher students – more than 24,000 attending private schools in Milwaukee – and the property value is reduced again because the students aren’t counted in the equalized value of the city’s property value. Gonda said the formula artificially inflates property values, making it seem Milwaukee’s property base is wealthier than it is, which costs the city about $50 million per year.
“It creates a double deduction in school aid. We believe that is an inequitable way to fund schools,” she said. “We have the average property taxpayer paying nearly $200 a year more to support that. In an age where the economy and the financial needs of residents is pretty tight, we believe that additional $200 is asking too much.”
The city’s stance against selling property to voucher schools was included in documents obtained in an open records request filed last month by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit law firm and outreach organization advocating for individual liberty and open government.
In a statement, WILL said its request was an attempt to “find out what, if anything the City and MPS are doing about the appalling problem of the many unused school buildings sitting idle for years in Milwaukee.”
“Unfortunately, the City’s response to our request raises more questions than answers,” the organization concluded.
Among its findings, Will asserts:
- The city refuses to use its power to directly name and sell unused, empty school buildings. “City only sells those schools that MPS allows it to, even though it can sell them directly via 2011 Act 17.”
- Current city policy prohibits the selling of unused school buildings to private choice and for-profit charter schools. “The City isn’t satisfied by simply not selling to private schools – it places a permanent deed restrictions on the buildings to prevent future buyers from selling to private schools.”
WILL asserts private schools are being turned away. In October 2012, according to the organization, St. Marcus Lutheran School, which boasts a 95 percent graduation rate, inquired about purchasing three empty buildings located within a few blocks of its campus. The city’s response, according to WILL: “MPCP (Milwaukee Parental Choice Program) schools are not eligible to purchase vacant MPS property” and St. Marcus should “join the City of Milwaukee in lobbying vigorously for repair of the formula.”
Asked how could children and families in the voucher programs affect the political situation, Gonda said, “I suppose any way any person would advocate policy change in the state: Contact their legislator.”
WILL claims the city is using Milwaukee’s children as a “political football.”
CJ Szafir, WILL’s associate counsel and education policy director, said Barrett and city officials “kind of pulled a fast one on the Legislature.”
“It’s just rotten” he said. “When you have children who are not able to go to high performing schools, who don’t have access to schools nearby, and it’s all because of some vendetta they have with the Legislature. That’s the reason why they won’t put buildings in Parental Choice and (for-profit) charter school hands.”
Szafir said WILL is looking into other court cases on the subject as it seeks its open records request from MPS.
Gonda said the city could not provide an updated list of surplus MPS-owned buildings. She said it’s a complicated legal question because Milwaukee’s city attorney also represents MPS.
The city hopes to contract with outside council to retrieve the information if MPS refuses to release the latest records, which are public because they involve taxpayer-funded properties.
It appears MPS is brokering some deals.
Tony Tagliavia, MPS spokesman, sent Wisconsin Reporter an updated list of recent building sales, leases and reuse projects. The district sold four properties between July 2011 and April 2013, according to the document.
Properties sold include:
- Robinson Middle School in July 2011 for senior housing.
- 38th Street School sold June 2012 to Milwaukee College Prep, a charter school system chartered through MPS and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
- Lloyd Street School, also sold to Milwaukee College Prep in June 2012
- Former Morse Middle School Building, sold this month to Hmong American Peace Academy, a Hmong charter school, opened in the fall of 2008.
The MPS document lists 13 properties being leased, mostly by charter schools, and seven properties being reused.
“In addition, we transferred the Garfield building to the city of Milwaukee in September 2011. And in August 2012, we identified four buildings as surplus: 5th Street, Carleton, Centro del Nino and the former MSE site on Appleton Avenue,” Tagliavia said.
MPS’ Disposition of Surplus School Property states the district must make a priority the sale, for non-public purpose, with the goal of returning as many properties to the tax base as possible.
In his 2011 letter to Darling, which WILL provided to Wisconsin Reporter upon request, Barrett said the city had provided MPS with $182 million in borrowing authority for school building improvements since 1989.
“The proceeds of MPS real estate sales should be directed to provide immediate property tax relief by offsetting the city’s sales tax levy for these improvements,” Barrett wrote.
It’s not clear how much money Milwaukee property taxpayers have saved in the sale of old public school buildings.
Gonda said vacant properties in general aren’t moving as quickly as the city would like due in large part to limited resources.
“Right now we have one real estate agent who handles all sales citywide,” she said. “We have to prioritizes what we put on the market.”
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