by MCJ Staff
Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines and State Senator Alberta Darling promised to do all in their power to rid the city of the ongoing problem of vacant school buildings in Milwaukee.
During a press conference held Wednesday in front of the empty 38th Street School, Hines and Darling said they would change existing legislation or even write new legislation that would force Milwaukee Public Schools to sell or lease it’s vacant school buildings to high-performing charter schools.
“For several years, the City of Milwaukee has experienced an ironic disconnect between the overabundance of empty school facilities and the lack of outstanding educational options for students and families,” said President Hines. “These facilities must be available for high-performing schools, and the City of Milwaukee is in a position to ensure they are put to use in the best manner possible.”
The current system allows the MPS Board of Directors to prevent any sale of a facility to an “educational competitor,” even though the land on which the school sits is technically owned by the City of Milwaukee.
In November, the Common Council adopted, as part of its state-lobbying “legislative package,” the official position that these policies must be changed in order to improve education in Milwaukee.
“We must focus on educating children and not on whose name is on the front of the building,” said Senator Darling, who is proposing significant legislation at the state level to address the problem. “All of us owe it to the taxpayers to ensure that these schools are used to provide quality education for children.”
In a statement, MPS officials addressed the concern of vacant school buildings, noting that more than a dozen sites have been targeted for redevelopment or re-use.
“There are no easy solutions, but the district can offer a reassurance. MPS has 13 excess buildings it is maintaining, and for which it is actively pursuing new uses that either return money to taxpayers, or at least, that will protect their interests,” the statement said.
MPS officials said they have employed several strategies to tackle the vacant-school-building issue. The strategy to date has been to reoccupy the buildings when possible with students the district can count for state aid purposes. The preference, under this strategy, is to reoccupy the building with a high-performing academic program, the type of which is sometimes offered by charter schools.
Said the statement: “In these scenarios, our goal is to recover the cost of operating the building, not to make a profit. MPS is doing precisely this in leasing the former Morse Middle School building to the Hmong American Peace Academy, a school with a charter contract with the district.
“ Another example: the high-performing Carmen High School, which is another MPS charter, occupying the former Walker Middle School.”
The second strategy the district has used is to pursue redevelopment, as in the case of the former Robinson Middle School, which has been sold to a developer planning 64 units of senior and residential housing, and the construction of 14 senior rent-to-own homes on the 4.5 acre site.
“To those who say the district should work with the City of Milwaukee in the disposition of its surplus property, we say that we have been working with the city, and happily so,” said MPS Superintendent Gregory E. Thornton.
The City’s Department of City Development (DCD) has been instrumental in the listing of properties and the search for developers.
Also addressing another area of concern, the statement addressed those who suggest that MPS buildings should be provided, free of charge to other educational institutions, in particular, to schools operated under the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program.
Said the statement: “It has been a position of the Board of School Directors to avoid sales or leases of district buildings to competing schools because these schools enroll students who are not counted for state aid purposes, thus increasing the burden on taxpayers.”