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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Only Private, Charter Schools Can Purchase Surplus MPS Buildings

Michelle Maternowski
The former Wisconsin Avenue School is one of eleven vacant MPS buildings currently listed for sale by the City of Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee Public Schools system has been shrinking in terms of enrollment. Now, it could lose more buildings, too.

When a school closes, it goes on a list of vacant, or “surplus” properties.

Friday, the Common Council approved five interested entities who can buy those buildings. Not on the list: MPS.

The issue has roots in the long-standing debate over school choice.

For years, Milwaukee school leaders have tried to lay claim to these buildings, for future use. So sales have been rare.

After the district rebuffed several offers from private, voucher school operators, Republican lawmakers created a rule forcing MPS to sell empty structures.

Alderman Jim Bohl says he and his colleagues would like to keep the buildings in MPS, but the city’s hands are tied.

“Government works like it’s the military -- the state is the sergeant, and any local municipality, like a city, town or village, is a private in the army,” Bohl says. “When you’re a private in the army and the sergeant says drop and do 10 pushups, you do 10 pushups whether we like it or not.”

Bohl heads the city’s Committee on Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development – it facilitates the sale of city property, including MPS buildings.

The City of Milwaukee recently put 11 of those buildings up for sale. Several prospective buyers submitted letters of interest. MPS wanted to get on the list, but the committee voted earlier this week, that the district is ineligible.

Bohl says the state’s criteria for potential buyers is that they are private or charter school operators.

“MPS does not meet the statutory requirement, they don’t have a right to bid on excess properties.” Bohl explains.

There appear to be five education operators that qualify.

CJ Szafir is Vice President of Policy for WILL, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. It represents a private school interested in the vacant properties.

Szafir says MPS can benefit from selling unused buildings because the sale money would go back into the district.

“We think the sale of vacant buildings is a win-win-win,” Szafir says. “A win for the children, a win for Milwaukee Public Schools, and a win for the education scene, because there are more educational options.”

Szafir adds that the city can benefit, too. By WILL’s estimate, local taxpayers have shelled out about $1.3 million since 2014 to maintain empty MPS buildings.

And Szafir says other operators will use them to expand school options for Milwaukee kids.

“Most people can agree that the city of Milwaukee needs more high-quality schools, whether they’re private schools, whether they’re public schools, whether they’re public charter schools,” Szafir lists. 

MPS spokesman Tony Tagliavia says the district is working to use its facilities to expand strong programs, and a decision like this could hinder their plans.

"We are disappointed and concerned that this latest development may limit our ability to continue to grow programs with a track record of success that families in our community are seeking," Tagliavia says. "It may also limit our ability to continue to partner with the city in redeveloping neighborhoods."

While the full City Council voted Friday to approve the list of private entities that can buy surplus MPS buildings, Alderman Bohl continues encouraging the district to challenge its exclusion.

Any such action could extend what’s already been a long-running fight over Milwaukee’s educational turf.

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