MILWAUKEE – The people of Milwaukee paid to construct school buildings to educate the children of the city.

For sale buildingsSo that’s how the buildings should be used, regardless of the type of school that inhabits them.

Sadly the people who run Milwaukee Public Schools don’t see things that way. The district reportedly has 15-20 vacant buildings, but has been resisting efforts by the operators of nontraditional schools to purchase them, according to a recent story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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MPS officials don’t like competition from charter and voucher schools, because they lose students and millions of dollars in state aid money. They also know there’s limited space in the city for alternative schools.

If they can keep charter and voucher schools from moving into the vacant buildings, more students will be forced to stay at MPS and more jobs will be preserved.

That self-serving policy is not acceptable. Schools don’t exist to provide jobs for adults. Milwaukee is a school choice city, and its buildings should be used to accommodate the schools that students prefer.

There’s a possible resolution to this controversy.

A current bill in the state legislature, proposed by Sen. Alberta Darling and Rep. Joe Sanfellipo, would designate a school building as vacant if less than 40 percent of its square feet are used for instruction, or if it’s not staffed full time, according to the news report. It would also pressure MPS officials to sell vacant buildings to charter or voucher schools by making them wait at least four years to sell to other interested parties.

The highest and best use

MPS officials say they currently have 15 vacant school buildings, according to the news report. Critics say that number is closer to 20.

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In 2010 the Journal Sentinel reported that MPS had 27 empty school buildings, but denied requests from charter and voucher operators to purchase at least some of them.

Apparently that sort of thing is still going on.

A perfect example is the empty Dover Street School. Officials from St. Lucas Lutheran School, which is right next door, say they have the financing arranged to purchase the building, according to the news report. Yet MPS officials are discussing a bizarre plan to convert the structure into teacher housing.

Then there’s the vacant Malcolm X Academy. Officials from St. Marcus Lutheran School have been eager to buy the building for quite some time, but at last word MPS was considering turning it into some sort of community center.

“This is the absolute epitome of a shell game preventing high performing schools from expanding,” Henry Tyson, superintendent of St. Marcus Lutheran School, told the Journal Sentinel.

CJ Szafir, associate counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), recently testified before the Wisconsin Senate Committee on Government Operations, Public Works and Telecommunications, regarding the unused building controversy.

A written synopsis of his testimony reveals troubling facts about the situation.

He told the committee that in 2011, in response to MPS’ failure to sell buildings to charter and voucher schools, the state passed a law giving the Milwaukee Common Council (city council) the right to sell the buildings without MPS approval. But the Common Council has failed to use that authority.

Szafir cited a WILL report that found the city adopted a policy earlier this year stating that MPS officials must designate unused buildings as “surplus” before they can be sold.  Szafir said that’s not likely to happen, based on MPS school board President Michael Bonds’ statement that he would never approve the sale of buildings to choice schools because that would be like “asking the Coca-Cola company to turn over its facilities to Pepsi.”

The report also said city policy prohibits the sale of unused buildings to private voucher schools or “for profit” charter schools, and calls for deed restrictions permanently banning buyers from ever selling the buildings to voucher or independent charter schools.

A WILL investigation revealed that voucher or independent charter schools have expressed interest in purchasing every vacant MPS building on the market, with no success, according to Szafir.

He noted that MPS claims it has sold three buildings to charter school since 2011, but they were MPS affiliated charter schools that employ MPS teachers and other staff.

The Journal Sentinel sums up the standoff this way:

“The tension over the buildings issue underscores the divide between MPS and nondistrict charter and voucher schools that compete for Milwaukee children, who typically bring a share of taxpayer funding to whatever school they attend.

“Many advocates of public schools see the growth of other school sectors threatening district enrollment. Others don’t wish to see taxpayer money supporting children in private schools that don’t have to follow the same accountability rules as public schools.

“Charter and private voucher school operators counter that their high-performing schools should be able to expand, and that preserving district enrollment should not come at the expense of offering a greater number of children a quality education.”

Heather Heaviland from IFF, a nonprofit that helps charter and voucher schools secure building space, has the right answer to the dilemma.

“We need to look at these buildings for their highest and best use,” she said.

That would be their original use – the education of Milwaukee children. If MPS doesn’t have enough students to fill them, it should get out of the way and let others use them in a productive manner.