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Politics & Government

State May Force MPS to Sell Vacant School Buildings to Other Educators

Michelle Maternowski

The state may pressure Milwaukee Public Schools to sell vacant buildings to other educational entities.

Back in 2011, legislators passed a bill encouraging Milwaukee to dispose of vacant schools. In one case, a developer has converted former classrooms into senior housing.

Recently however, MPS has refused to sell or lease its old Malcolm X School to St. Marcus Lutheran on the north side. The private school wants to open a second campus. MPS leaders say they have other plans for the building.

Republican Sen. Alberta Darling authored the bill. It would require Milwaukee to sell school buildings that sit underused or vacant for five years.

“To prove a building is still in use, MPS will have to staff it and use it to educate children,” Darling says.

During the first four years MPS would not use a building, the city could only sell it to a party that would use it as a school. Darling says MPS has made such sales difficult.

“In the past, it’s kind of been a shell game and a wild goose for some of the charter or choice schools who are very interested in purchasing some of the schools,” Darling says. 

The plan would require MPS to take annual inventory of buildings it could sell and post the list online. By Darling’s count, 28 buildings qualify now.

MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton says not so.

“Let me give you exact numbers. There are 15 buildings, 15 buildings in Milwaukee Public Schools where we do not have children, five of which there are plans,” Thornton says.

Thornton says those plans include creating a boarding school and resource center at the former Malcolm X. The superintendent says the district must also keep its eye on future enrollment.

“When I look at projections for the next five years, I see trends moving up. I see a bigger investment into MPS. If all the facilities are gone, where do I go? Do I build new ones?” Thornton asks.

Thornton told the senators the bill would also force MPS to evict 3,000 students from their schools, because they’re not at 40-percent capacity.

What MPS really fears, is competition, according to Jim Bender. He’s with the group School Choice Wisconsin. It advocates for the state’s voucher program.

“I don’t doubt for a second that MPS and the board wants to retain flexibility of their portfolio of schools. The motivation behind that however, is one that is not one I believe that is searching to provide the best opportunities for the best schools in Milwaukee. It is a market share issue,” Bender says.

Both MPS and the city have rebuffed requests to sell or lease the former Malcolm X School to St. Marcus Lutheran School, according to its Superintendent Henry Tyson. He says his school needs to open a second campus because it doesn't have room for all the students interested in enrolling. "We have phenomenal financial statements. We have a phenomenal  track record. We've been in the neighborhood for 130 years, (have) a proven ability to  operate a high quality school, and the answer was 'no' without any explanation," Tyson says.

Mayor Tom Barrett says local leaders must make the best decisions possible for the people they serve and the state should not be dictating the rules.

"I cannot think of an instance where the state Legislature has told a local unit of government who it can sell property to, when it can sell the property and the price at which it can sell the property," Barrett says.

Barrett also opposes specifics of the proposed mandate.

“I feel very strongly that this legislation does exactly the wrong thing when it comes to requiring us to hold on to a building for four years for educational purposes only. I hear that and what I here is you’re telling us that we have to have that building sit vacant for four years. Requiring us not to allow it for senior housing, for community centers,” Barrett says. 

The City of Milwaukee owns the buildings MPS operates.

The Milwaukee School Board is scheduled to discuss the St. Marcus matter Thursday night.