Motivated buyer looking for vacant school buildings
City of Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines Jr. thinks the city should have the authority to sell vacant public school buildings within its borders, and has teamed up with a very powerful Republican state lawmaker to change the state law preventing it.
Hines and State Sen. Alberta Darling held a joint news conference in front of the vacant 38th Street School Wednesday to announce plans to change the law and attract high-performing charter schools to the city.
38th Street School is significant because Milwaukee College Prep (a UWM Charter) was in negotiations with MPS to purchase the building for four years to expand their program. When an agreement fell through, MCP leased a vacant, city-owned charter school.
Currently, State Statute Chapter 119 allows the Milwaukee Public Schools board to oversee and negotiate the sale of vacant buildings. The buildings and school district property are owned by the city, but the school district pays for the upkeep of vacant properties, totaling approximately $1 million annually.
Hines said this legal loophole allows the board to stop sales of vacant properties to “educational competitors” seeking to open in Milwaukee. That in turn, is blocking many excellent schools that want to locate in the city. He added the nationally-recognized KIPP School program is one such charter that has expressed an interest in opening here, but pulled out when they learned MPS won’t sell an existing school building to them.
But MPS spokeswoman Rosanne St. Aubin wants to set the record straight. She says that a recent story in The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was riddled with mistakes and sends a misleading message about how MPS manages its buildings.
“The 27 properties cited as being vacant is incorrect,” she said. “While there are no children in them, there is programming and activities happening in 13 of them, and one is a playfield. And at this time, Robinson Middle School has been sold to developers for senior housing.”
She added that Morse and Thurston Woods are being used as MPS charter schools and 76th Street School is being leased by Greater Holy Temple, a private charter. Part of the problem with leasing to outside charters, St. Aubin said, is that some charters default on the agreement.
In addition, the sluggish economy has made it difficult to find buyers.
“Vacant and un-cared for properties are a scourge on neighborhoods. They are a blight and often become a danger when they become homes to squatters or criminals. We know this is true. Our students often must walk by these buildings on their way to and from school. We wish our children were not exposed to these dangers.
“Members of the Common Council know this challenge well; the Council took steps last month to institute a vacant property registry to better track foreclosed or abandoned homes, which some have estimate number well over 4000,” St. Aubin said in a prepared release.
But the confirmed policy of the school board has been not to sell to other educational organizations that will take students off the district’s rolls.
“We want uses that protect the taxpayers,” St. Aubin said, “and voucher (schools) don’t count toward the student or count for MPS. We want students that we can count.”
So the board wants to maintain its student numbers and cash flow, by having kids enrolled in MPS district or charter schools. Non-district charter and choice schools want to know they can expand within the community.
Hines and Darling want students enrolled in the best schools available, whether they be public, charter, and in the case of Darling, even parochial schools, and by their actions, believe that non-district schools have something to offer in the education mix.
While Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton said he is willing to work with all education providers to find the best practices to help Milwaukee students succeed, the current board policy and state Statute 119 are creating a log jam that Hines and Darling seek to break up.
Absent from Wednesday’s conference was Mayor Tom Barrett, but Hines said the effort to get the statute changed was approved 15-0 by the Common Council in November as part of the city’s legislative package and Barrett was supportive. He added that city lobbyists in Madison will work to advance the effort with legislators.