WILL Responds to MPS on Unused Schools Issues

Published on: September 12, 2013

On Tuesday, Milwaukee Public Schools responded to WILL’s report, “MPS and the City Ignore State Law on Unused Property.”  Here is WILL’s reply:

1.  MPS’ response is significant for what it does not say.  WILL’s report states that, right now, there are at least 20 unused school buildings that are not on the market – and practically all of these buildings have attracted interest from charter and choice schools.  As far as its records reveal, MPS refuses to adopt basic business practices, such as keeping an updated portfolio of what is happening with its facilities.  How is the public to know where things stand when it is not clear that MPS keeps tabs on them?

2.  MPS thinks everything is okay because it has sold four buildings since 2011 and leases to MPS schools.  MPS’ response is similar to a football team (we trust it would be the Bears) celebrating that they scored two touchdowns in a game – only to end up losing 55-14.  Our report acknowledged that MPS had disposed of a few buildings, but when there are at least 20 empty buildings – and substantial demand for them – claiming credit for selling a few is a bit like a chronic absentee celebrating the fact that he usually comes in on Tuesdays.  Children and taxpayers deserve better.         

3.  Malcolm X is both off the market and on the market.  MPS claims that in 2012, the School Board determined that Malcolm X would be used as a “community resource center[]”.  But its records tell a completely different story.  In 2012, MPS gave tours of Malcolm X to numerous educational operators, including Believers Institute (4/24/12), CYD and School of Excellence (4/20/12), Milwaukee College Prep (8/20/12), Heritage (5/1/2012), and American Quality Schools (9/6/2012).  Superintendent Thornton signed off on the MCP, AQS, and CYD tours.  Emails indicate that School Board President Bonds was notified on CYD’s tour.  There were discussions of it being shown as recent as December 2012.  If the building was to be used as a “community resource center,” why show it to anyone?

4MPS says that it is “open to discussing other buildings options with private and public organizations for unused space.”  This may very well be true – unless you are a school in the Milwaukee Choice Program or a non-MPS charter.  This is not a matter of interpretation.  City and MPS disposition policy states that “sales to educational institutions will be limited to non-profit charter schools, and to private schools not enrolled in the voucher program.”  These are their words; not ours.

MPS also frustrates and stonewalls charter schools from purchasing buildings (see Woodlands, Lighthouse, MCP).  If that wasn’t enough, MPS puts illegal deed restrictions on its buildings preventing non-MPS schools from ever purchasing them.  While it did sell a building to Milwaukee College Prep, this is consistent with the story the district’s own documents tell.  While MPS calls MCP an “independent” charter, the buildings sold to MCP are actually “non-instrumentality” (i.e., non-union) schools chartered by MPS.  In other words, for the time being, MPS counts MCP students as MPS students for state aid (allowing MPS to keep a percentage of state aid).

If yesterday’s response by MPS indicates a change in these policies, we welcome it.  But, in the end, it is actions and not words that will tell the tale.

5.  Since 2010, MPS has used the same, recycled talking points – cite to the few successes, note a few are on the market, say it is working with others, and deflect attention away from the 20 empty buildings.  Consider:

December 31, 2010, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:  “As far as the buildings that MPS doesn’t have interest in using, Thornton said he’s been working with the Common Council and the mayor to find community uses for them.”

September 6, 2012, Wisconsin Reporter:   MPS:  “Four are currently on the market (MSE, Carleton, Coggs, Central del Nino).  We have letters of intent to purchase a number of other buildings beyond the four.”

April 26, 2013, Wisconsin Reporter:  “Tony Tagliavia, MPS spokesman, sent Wisconsin Reporter an updated list of recent building sales, leases and reuse projects.  The district sold four properties between July 2011 and April 2013, according to the document . . . In addition, we transferred the Garfield building to the city of Milwaukee in September 2011.  And in August 2012, we identified four buildings as surplus: 5th Street, Carleton, Centro del Nino  and the former MSE site on Appleton Avenue.”

September 6, 2013, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:  “MPS said that the legal group also ignores that the district currently leases space to 11 charters or partnership schools, including leasing the old Green Bay Avenue school to Universal Schools, a company from Pennsylvania that will operate a charter school under the MPS umbrella.”

September 10, 2013, MPS Statement:   “Since 2011, MPS has sold four school buildings, including three to successful independent charter schools—Milwaukee College Prep and Hmong American Peace Academy—and one that has been successfully redeveloped as senior housing . . . Eleven charter or partnership schools are currently leasing MPS sites.”

Might MPS have use for some of its 20 or so unused buildings?  Perhaps.  Does it have use for all of them?  Not likely.  Fortunately for the taxpayers and children of Milwaukee, others just may be able to put them to great use – if only MPS would cooperate.

Click here for the full report.