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

Milwaukee Choice School Sues MPS Over Transportation Costs

Bill McChesney/Flickr

Updated March 23, 2017:

The tug-of-war continues between public and private choice schools in Milwaukee over transportation costs.

Last fall, a pair of Milwaukee voucher schools approached MPS, asking the district to reimburse them for the cost of student bus service.

Now, one of those programs is suing MPS.

Leaders at St. Joan Antida High School say MPS has refused to address the transportation issue, violating state law and discriminating against students who attend private religious schools.

“It is our intent to achieve a fair resolution to this that our students and their families receive the same transportation benefits as those attending public city-wide high schools,” says Paul Gessner, Head of School at St. Joan, in a statement.

Lawyers at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty had reached out to MPS on behalf of St. Joan last fall, in attempt to rectify the issue. They filed their lawsuit in federal court this week.

An MPS spokeswoman says the district does not comment on pending litigation.

Original post: December 22, 2016


The relationship in Milwaukee between public schools and private choice schools has long been a contentious, or at least a competitive oneState funding comes attached to thousands of students who can attend either sector at public expense. Now, the concern is transportation.

A pair of Milwaukee voucher schools wants MPS to cover the cost of getting their students to and from school. They say, it’s the law.

You might be surprised to learn that Wisconsin does have a law on its books about how private school students get to class. Here’s how Brian Pahnke explains it – he’s the assistant state superintendent for finance and management with Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction…

“Under state law, students that attend private elementary or high schools are entitled to transportation provided by the public school district in which they reside, if certain criteria are met,” Pahnke says.

The last part of that rule is important: public districts must pay for busing for private school students, if they meet certain conditions:

  • If the child lives two or more miles from the private school that he or she attends
  • If the child resides within the private school’s approved attendance area, and
  • If the private school that the child attends is located either within the boundaries of that child’s school district, or not more than 5 miles beyond the boundaries of the district.

That’s a lot of “if’s.” And the nuances complicate things.
For example, public districts must evaluate transportation requests on a case-by-case basis, and negotiate an arrangement with choice schools they see as competitors.

Schools like St. Joan Antida, a private, all-girls Catholic high school on the city’s east side. Ninety-eight percent of the students attend St. Joan on a voucher through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, and the school’s demographics look very similar to nearby MPS high schools.

"The issue is that the law requires MPS to treat our students the same as they treat theirs."

Head of School Paul Gessner says his students come to campus from all four corners of Milwaukee, including a significant number near the edge of city limits, near Brown Deer.

St. Joan has paid to bus its students for the last 6 years, at a cost of more than $100,000 dollars annually. So, based on the state law mentioned, Gessner applied for reimbursement from MPS -- but the district turned him down.

St. Joan has since sought legal help, and notified MPS that there will be litigation if the district doesn’t pay.

Gessner says the situation is about more than finances. He calls it a social justice concern.

“The issue is that the law requires MPS to treat our students the same as they treat theirs,” he says. “Many parents tell me that if we don’t provide yellow bus, then their daughter won’t come here. I just don’t think it’s right for our families to have to make that decision, based on something as basic as transportation.”

Gessner says during his tenure, a few families have made the decision to leave St. Joan, citing transportation issues as the main reason. Those students have transferred to their local MPS high school, or a choice school closer to home.

“MPS is the local education authority, and services have to come through them,” Gessner adds. “All children in the city are really under their charge.”

St. Joan isn’t the only choice school challenging MPS over bus service.

Leaders of the Messmer Catholic Schools network say they’ve also contacted the district multiple times about reimbursement for student transportation. They even wrote a letter and presented it to the Milwaukee School Board in October. The board handed Messmer’s request to district Superintendent Darienne Driver.

It’s unclear how Driver handled the issue – but Messmer does not seem satisfied. It plans to present its letter to the board again at its meeting tonight. The private school leaders are also requesting a public hearing on the issue of transportation for January.

MPS has said it’s in the process of reviewing the requests from both private schools.

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