Milwaukee City Officials Have A Lot of Explaining To Do

Published on: April 23, 2013

On March 29, 2013, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (“WILL”) filed open records requests with the City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Public Schools in an attempt to find out what, if anything, the City and MPS are doing about the appalling problem of the many unused school buildings that have sat idle for years in Milwaukee.  Unfortunately, the City’s response to our request raises more questions than answers.

The City refuses to use its power to directly name and sell unused school buildings.  Two years ago, the Governor signed into law Act 17 which gives the City the ability to sell or lease unused and underutilized school buildings.  Previously, the selling of unused schools required approval by the MPS Board. The legislative change was prompted by MPS’ refusal to dispose of buildings that are not being used and that, given long term trends, never will be.

But, despite lobbying hard for Act 17, the City will not sell any unused buildings without the consent of MPS.  Neglecting to use the power it fought for, the City has adopted a policy that requires MPS to first designate unused buildings as “surplus.”  In other words, it has returned its newly obtained authority right back to the entity whose foot dragging caused the legislative change in the first place.

Allowing the fox to guard the hens might not be so bad, if MPS designated all the empty building that are unneeded as “surplus.”  It doesn’t.  When Act 17 took effect, MPS had an estimated 25 to 35 unused and substantially underutilized buildings.  Yet, in 2012, MPS allowed the City to sell just 4 of the 21 those buildings (which the City called “an extremely short list”).  Two summers ago, MPS removed all of its unused buildings from the “surplus” list.

If MPS is preventing the City from selling empty buildings, one must ask why the City doesn’t use the power that it has to sell the buildings directly?  The City is violating the spirit of Act 17 by ignoring the law and the power that it asked for and received.

City policy prohibits the selling of unused school buildings to many private and charter schools.  Even for those few buildings that MPS is willing to sell, the City has refused to sell them to the most likely buyers.  According to express City policy, private schools in the choice program and select charter schools are not allowed to buy unused school buildings.  Selling empty school buildings to private and charter schools would immediately turn blighted, abandoned buildings into fully-functional educational institutions.  Indeed, if one wants to relieve taxpayers of the burden of maintaining unused properties, about $1 million per year, and bring in sales or rental proceeds instead, there is no more likely buyer or tenant for a school building – than a school.

It is as if the City and MPS had opened a children’s clothing store and barred families from entering. But, once again, it gets worse.

The City isn’t satisfied by simply not selling to private schools – it places a permanent deed restriction on the buildings to prevent future buyers from selling to private schools.  Even if a buyer can be found, this makes financing difficult – if not impossible – to obtain.  While MPS and the City may think it makes sense to sell water only to those who aren’t thirsty, lenders tend to take a more reality-based view.

In addition to it being poor business practice, the deed restriction raises several serious legal and constitutional questions.  Similar deed restrictions on charter and choice schools were found to be illegal by the Ohio Supreme Court.  Moreover, no government interest is being served by permitting sales to non-choice private schools and non-profit charters – and not allowing sales to choice private schools and for-profit charters.

The City is using the children of Milwaukee as a political football.  Why would the City and MPS refuse to sell property that is not needed to obtain money that both entities continually claim not to have?  The City’s response to our request may provide the answer.

Politics.

City policy shows that choice and charter schools cannot buy unused buildings until the public school funding formula is fixed.  The City and MPS have reiterated this position in emails to private schools who unsuccessfully attempted to buy empty school buildings.

It is certainly true that, while MPS taxpayers must pay a portion of the voucher for those Milwaukee taxpayers who prefer choice schools for their children, the school funding formula operates in a way that results in the loss of state aid for that student.  The financial impact on MPS will vary depending on the relationship between that loss aid and the amount that MPS saves by not having to educate departing students.  Whether or not this is a “flaw” – whether it is “unfair” – will depend on those facts and on whether one believes that a district that is unable to persuade large numbers of families that they ought to send their children to its schools ought to feel the consequence of that failure.

But whatever one thinks of fixing the funding formula, the City and MPS are holding their own taxpayers – and the families of choice students who also reside in Milwaukee and pay taxes to MPS and the City – hostage to a political objective.

High performing private schools are being turned away. This high stakes game of “chicken” has more than financial consequences. The City is depriving thousands of children of having access to – not only a nearby school – but also a high quality education.  In October 2012, for example, St. Marcus Lutheran School, which has a 95% graduation rate, inquired about buying 3 empty school buildings that were located within a few blocks of its main campus.  The City’s response:  “MPCP [choice] schools are not eligible to purchase vacant MPS property” and St. Marcus should “join the City of Milwaukee in lobbying vigorously for repair of the formula.”

All in all, the City owes its taxpayers – and children – an explanation.  Choice and charter schools have been ready to buy and lease unused schools that have been vacant for years.  However, the City willingly allows MPS to block this from occurring.

To help answer these questions, WILL filed an open records request with MPS – which was received on April 1st – and has yet to receive any records.  The request asked for, among other things, communications relating to the purchase of MPS buildings, documents relating to certain unused buildings that MPS refuses to sell, and MPS’ portfolio of buildings, if it even exists.  These records will be reported, whenever MPS decides to comply.