MPS Could Cut Budget By Selling Buildings
And those empty buildings could be used by charter and voucher schools.
The deadline is fast approaching for Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) to present a finalized budget and tensions are high as the district faces an estimated $38.7 million deficit next year. If nothing changes, the deficit will grow to $177 million by 2022.
It is a shame that MPS is in this position, because the district will have to make cuts and teachers and administrators will lose jobs. But there are common sense ways to cut spending including some ideas that the district paid MGT consulting group $956,501 to recommend. In the report released this spring, the consultant group recommended that the district sell or repurpose 20 existing MPS buildings and renovate existing schools.
This is not the first time MPS is hearing this. Over the last decade, there have been a number of choice and charter schools interested in purchasing the buildings, as the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) chronicled in 2014, 2015 and 2017. WILL urged MPS to sell the buildings to interested private and charter schools. Nevertheless, MPS and the city of Milwaukee have worked together to prevent the sale of vacant school buildings to interested charter and private school operators for years.
In 2015 the state legislature got involved and passed a “Surplus Property Law” to force the city to sell unused or underutilized school buildings to private and charter schools. However, the city of Milwaukee refuses to comply with the law. For example, MPS is allowed to decide which buildings are “vacant” even though that is clearly defined in the law. And the list of available vacant schools for sale is quite clearly incomplete. This makes the process difficult for interested buyers.
Consider Right Step, a private school in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program that accepts the students who are expelled from MPS. The school works to build discipline into difficult students through military-style training and order. Without Right Step, many of these students would be out of an education setting for good. In February of 2016, Right Step submitted a letter of interest for Centro del Nino, a vacant school in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood.
The city of Milwaukee was required to complete the transaction in 60 days under Wisconsin law. Instead, the city dragged Right Step through bureaucratic mud—first, the deal went to the Zoning and Neighborhood Committee, then to the Common Council, then to the Board of Zoning Appeals which stated that the building had since been rezoned for a bank and couldn’t be used as an educational facility. After eight months the city killed the deal, even though Right Step had its finances in order and had agreed to pay the $223,000, the value given to the building in the city’s independent appraisal.
As the years have dragged on and many schools have remained empty, they have deteriorated and fallen farther behind building code. If MPS had initially sold these schools when they first were vacated, the process would have been a lot easier. But there is still time for MPS to utilize the Surplus Property Law to help stabilize its finances. If the district were to sell the 11 vacant buildings at their appraised values listed online today, they would rake in $5,895,000, almost one fifth of the district’s estimated budget deficit. MPS and the City should be making it as easy as possible for interested private and charter school operators to purchase these buildings. Any funds received by buyers under the Surplus Property law must be deposited with MPS.
Not only could these buildings be used to educate Milwaukee kids, according to a 2017 study by Community Blight Solutions, “the impact of vacancy on crime increases as the property stays vacant for longer periods.” Some Milwaukee schools have been vacant for as long as 13 years. The study also found that vacant properties contribute to decreasing home values in a community.
MPS argues that charter and voucher schools are bad news for Milwaukee’s kids. But according to WILL’s recent education report, charter and choice schools improve academic outcomes. With Milwaukee considered to be in the top 5% of dangerous cities in the country and reading proficiency rates as low as 8% in the 50 schools that predominantly educate black students, it can’t get much worse for Milwaukee’s poor kids. But perhaps MPS fears the best. A voucher school housed in a former public-school building that succeeds at educating the toughest kids, just might be their worst nightmare.
If the city of Milwaukee really cares about its kids—their education, their safety, their success—as well as balancing the budget and stewarding the dollars collected from city taxpayers, the least they can do is obey the law and sell their empty buildings.
Cori Petersen is a writing and research associate at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty. Libby Sobic is associate counsel for education law and policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.