Op Ed

MPS Could Cut Budget By Selling Buildings

And those empty buildings could be used by charter and voucher schools.

By - May 26th, 2018 02:14 pm
Milwaukee Public Schools Office of School Administration, 5225 W. Vliet St. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Milwaukee Public Schools Office of School Administration, 5225 W. Vliet St. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public 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.

The decision to hoard vacant school buildings has perpetuated the MPS budget crisis because Milwaukee taxpayers spend about $1 million to maintain these vacant buildings each year. No vacant school has been sold to private or charter school operators under the Surplus Property law, despite interested parties making steps to purchase schools.

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.

12 thoughts on “Op Ed: MPS Could Cut Budget By Selling Buildings”

  1. Dave Reid says:

    I for one am glad that school didn’t end up buying that old bank building (referred to in this oped) from MPS. It has since been sold (or it’s pending) and will be a nice new business going in there soon.

  2. Jeremy says:

    It’s telling that the full report has not been released, only the executive summary here:

    The strategy suggested by WILL only includes sale of the asset but there is probable savings from no longer operating these facilities. If you’d rather not read the 13 page executive summary point 1 & 2 illuminate the poor strategy of MPS as an organization.

    -Patrons, parents, and students in Milwaukee have shown significant support for
    identified/successful educational programs (IB, Montessori, bilingual, CTE-focus) as documented
    by both district reports and MGT survey data.
    -Identified educational programs are not provided equitably across the district. Each region does
    not have each of these identified/successful programs.

    So in an organization primarily funded by getting butts in the seats, you have programs that are highly successful but don’t implement them to saturate the market.

  3. Keith says:

    MPS stewardship of the budget is absent regarding the vacant buildings. As mentioned, sale of the vacant buildings yields almost $6 million, saves $1million/yr to maintain and reduces the cost of crime associated with vacant buildings. Whether to private business or to Choice/Charter Schools, it makes sense economically to sell the vacant buildings. A more difficult decision and a larger savings to the budget is reducing the cost of bussing.

  4. Brian says:

    Those empty buildings are older buildings out of compliance with ADA, and will be expensive to renovate in some cases. The school district is already struggling to sell a few of their old buildings as mandated by the state. I think this report is overly optimistic on whether those buildings are sellable.

  5. Ceci Chapple says:

    The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty: A vehicle for conservative and libertarian causes. ( citation needed- The Cap Times 5/19 2013 Steven Elbow ) We need to remember who these people are working for. It’s not MPS, MPS students or the common good of the City of Milwaukee.

  6. Aaron says:

    Why is this right-wing article from a pro-privatization organization being published by Urban Milwaukee?

  7. Henry says:

    $1 Billion a year could be saved by self-deportation of non-citizens.
    This amount includes the costs of education, medication (“non-compensated costs” of hospitals) and incarceration.
    Wisconsin needs to implement e-verify to stop the job-magnet for non-citizens.

  8. Dave Reid says:

    @Aaron Because we publish Op Eds (opinion) pieces from all sides of the political spectrum and have for years now.

  9. Dick says:

    When MPS loses students from a variety of grade levels to a choice or charter school, they also loose the reimbursement for that student from the State. So if MPS sells three buildings and loses 300 students from established schools, the drop in the MPS budget, assuming $9000 a student, would be $2,700.000. The schools that these students came from would still have to pay the costs of maintaining the school and paying the staff creating another budget shortfall. WILL does not mention that MPS has worked with a number of charter schools such as Milwaukee College Prep, Carmen, Highland Community School and others providing entire buildings or space in existing schools.

  10. JShore says:

    If these buildings are not ADA compliant why would they be sold to charter schools anyway? Like other school districts nationwide, I’m sure many of these schools are used for “swing” schools to house students when schools need to be renovated or if there is an anticipated increase in demographics to prevent overcrowding. Also, why would Milwaukee give up seats that would negatively impact the Milwaukee Public Schools?

  11. Ben says:

    WOW! Cori and Libby, please be careful asserting your “moral authority” on the education community, especially when you are not a teacher, administrator, or any faculty member of a school. One simply cannot say that charter and voucher kids take “the toughest kids” either. One, that is not true. And your statistics do little to support Milwaukee. Your poor use of statistics is dangerous. Also, MPS will not sell many of their buildings because THEY ARE CITY OWNED!!!!

    ALSO – I second Aaron’s question.

  12. Mandi says:

    I’d rather see MPS money go directly toward teachers and improving children’s learning experiences than maintaining unneeded vacant buildings, even though I don’t usually agree with WILL! Put public school kids first, not an expensive statement.

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