Report says Milwaukee defying state law regarding vacant school buildings

The $10 million problem of empty buildings

WAUKESHA, Wis. — A new report says the city of Milwaukee is defying state law by not putting sufficient effort into selling vacant school buildings.

The report, released Friday by the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), says Milwaukee is not in compliance with the state’s Surplus Property Law, which requires the city to sell unused Milwaukee Public Schools properties to education operators, private voucher schools and charter schools.

“Our report proves that the vacant school property problem that has plagued Milwaukee for so long remains unsolved,” CJ Szafir, vice president for policy at WILL, said in an interview.

“You have dwindling enrollment at Milwaukee Public Schools that has led to buildings that just sit empty, costing taxpayers money,” Szafir said. “These empty buildings over the course of the last decade have cost Milwaukee taxpayers well over $10.2 million.”

The Surplus Property Law was created in 2015. Prior to that, charter and voucher schools looking to start up or expand in Milwaukee found it impossible to purchase surplus MPS properties. Since the law went into effect, only one vacant building has been sold to a charter school.

“In many instances the city of Milwaukee is just blatantly ignoring provisions of the law,” Szafir said.

For example, the city of Milwaukee is supposed to list the vacant properties on their website as for sale. However, the city only lists five empty buildings, while WILL believes the number of properties for sale should be around 15.

In addition, the WILL report says Milwaukee allows MPS to hide vacant properties by saying they’re being used as “support buildings.”

“High performing charter and private schools can’t get access to the facilities they need to expand to take on more kids,” Szafir said. “Meanwhile, you have a Milwaukee Public School system with failing schools with a graduation rate below 60 percent.”

Szafir gave the example of Risen Savior, a Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP) school whose attendance has grown by 400 percent in the last decade. A vacant school, Fletcher, is a few blocks away.

“The city sat on their letter of interest for six months,” Szafir said. “And when they finally got around to entertaining Risen Savior, they came up with an appraisal of $1.4 million for a building that has sat empty.”

Because of the time delay and the cost, Risen Savior removed its application to purchase the vacant school.

To make the law stronger, the report by WILL suggests increasing the penalties for when the city loses a lawsuit over the refusal to sell surplus properties. State law could further clarify what counts as a surplus property so the city and Milwaukee would be forced to list them.

Milwaukee Alderman Jim Bohl, chairman of the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee, which controls the sale of the vacant school properties, said in a statement that several schools have expressed in purchasing the surplus property but did not follow through.

“I cannot say why for, but suspect that once some of the schools got into properties to assess condition and total costs to get the properties up to operational use, they may have determined the costs as prohibitive,” Bohl said.

Last year, two educational operators completed the process of purchasing a property, but one, Right Step, was denied the necessary zoning in order to operate the school. Bohl said he would not comment on the Board of Zoning Appeals’ decision.

RELATED: Zoning board stops vacant school building purchase by choice school

He also said that identifying the properties for sale was not the responsibility of the city, saying the Milwaukee Common Council’s responsibility is to identify educational operators eligible to purchase the properties and negotiate the price.

Szafir said Bohl was “flat out wrong in his interpretation of state law.”

“The city is responsible for putting the empty buildings on the website,” Szafir said. “They failed at that. They only listed five buildings. They’re supposed to list something closer to 15.”

State Rep. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, was one of the authors of the Surplus Property Law. Commenting on the report, Kooyenga said in a statement that the civil rights battles of the 1960s were about ensuring minority children could do better than attend “the status quo’s separate and unequal schools.”

“Today, government socialists abuse their power and disregard state law to prevent proven educational institutions the ability expand the mind and economic mobility of the poor,” Kooyenga said. “The buildings serve as an empty shrine to the left’s disregard for children and their embrace of the status quo.”

The other author of the law, state Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said the problems listed in the report are unacceptable.

“MPS surely makes it as hard as possible to have so many hurdles to jump through,” Darling said. “One can’t wait and wait if they want to start a school and grow the revenues to get it done.”

However, Darling questioned at this point what can be done to force MPS and the city of Milwaukee to comply with state law.

RELATED: Voucher school wants to buy unused building; Milwaukee schools won’t sell

“I know there are those that want financial repercussions for not cooperating,” Darling said. “I don’t know how you do that. It’s really hard to have teeth in the legislation because the ball keeps bouncing in different directions.”

Darling said that the issue needs to be resolved because it’s not just a matter of taxpayers paying the costs of the vacant buildings; the unused properties are bad for the community.

“It’s not good for public safety in those neighborhoods to have vacant, empty buildings,” Darling said. “When you have activity, you have safer neighborhoods.

“You would think that the taxpayers would be considered. You would think that the safety of the neighborhoods would be considered. You’d think that MPS would want to get these buildings off their hands.”

RELATED: Study: Milwaukee voucher program a half-billion dollar winner

When asked for a comment on the WILL report, MPS Director of Communications Denise Callaway said the cover showed four schools that were actually occupied.

“Other factual errors include listing the ALBA/Carmen South facility at 55 percent capacity when it is actually at 99.6 percent capacity and erroneously reporting that Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School — which is an MPS school — is “leasing” its own second campus on 88th Street,” Callaway said. “No lease is necessary.”

Szafir said in response that the ALBA/Carmen South error was a typo. “I suppose if they are focusing on the cover, then it’s a pretty accurate report.” 

James Wigderson reports for Wisconsin Watchdog. Contact him at jwigderson@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @jwigderson. Cross-posted at Wisconsin Watchdog.

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