Legal friction emerges over selling MPS surplus properties

Voucher and charter schools vying for vacant or underused buildings

MPS administration building

Six organizations are hoping to take advantage of a new state law intended to force the city of Milwaukee to sell vacant or underused Milwaukee Public School properties to charter and voucher schools.

MPS administration building
MPS administration building

But questions have been raised about which organizations are eligible to purchase those properties under the law, and a Common Council committee may enter into closed session with the city attorney to review its options during a Zoning and Neighborhoods Development Meeting on Tuesday.

The law was included in the state’s Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, which was passed as part of the 2015-’17 biennial budget. It allowed Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to appoint a commissioner with the power to turn over a few poorly performing MPS schools to public charter schools each year.

The law also forced the city to publicly post notice of MPS properties that met its definition of “vacant” or “underused” and engage in negotiations with organizations interested in purchasing those properties who meet its definition of an “education operator.”

The city has identified 11 properties that meet the law’s definition of vacant or underused. The six organizations seeking one or more of those properties are: Penfield Children’s Center, Risen Savior Lutheran School, Right Step Inc., Rocketship Education Wisconsin Inc., Pilgrim Rest Missionary Baptist Church, and an investor from California Named Shoucia Fan who wants to open an English as a second language school for Chinese international students in Milwaukee.

MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver also submitted a general letter of interest to City Clerk Jim Owczarski outlining the school district’s argument for retaining all 11 properties.

A Milwaukee-based conservative public interest law firm called the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty submitted a letter to Owczarski on March 15 that questions the legitimacy of Driver’s letter as well as Fan’s, and claims neither qualify as education operators under the law and cannot purchase or obtain the MPS surplus properties.

“The intent of the statute was to remove unused and underutilized school buildings from the control of MPS,” the letter reads. “It would not make sense to allow MPS or the superintendent to retain control of these properties by attempting to acquire them in lieu of the ‘education operators’ expressly defined in the statute. Nor would it make any sense to allow MPS to delay or frustrate the purchase of an eligible building by an education operator by asserting that MPS is a competitive bidder.”

The group went on to demand that the city immediately enter into negotiations with the five remaining organizations it says are eligible to purchase MPS properties.

MPS spokesperson Tony Tagliavia said the superintendent’s letter of interest identified buildings that are part of MPS’s Regional Development Plan and that the school district would like to keep the schools for future programs.

“A couple of examples include the former 88th Street School, which will open this fall as a second campus for the successful Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School, and the former Lee School facility, which is already being used as a campus for our charter partner Universal Academy for the College Bound,” Tagliavia said. “The law clearly gives the superintendent the authority to submit a letter of interest.”

Chris Holmes, president of Penfield Children’s Center, wants her organization to purchase the former Wisconsin Avenue School at 2708 W. Wisconsin Avenue so it can expand from its current facility two blocks north at 833 North 26th St.

Holmes said Penfield’s current building is too small, and the vacant Wisconsin Avenue School is a perfect candidate for expansion since it is already built to accommodate classrooms and is badly in need of millions of dollars worth of repairs and renovations. She said the vacant building adds unnecessary blight to one of the neighborhood’s most prominent and visible corners.

Though Holmes said Penfield has raised enough money to phase in between $7 million and $15 million in repairs to the building over the next several years, she worries that lengthy legal battles over how the law defines eligible education operators could delay Penfield’s bid to purchase the property.

“I think the question comes to whether or not the definition of an education provider could be challenged legally and that could lead to some lawsuits that could delay the process for a long time,” Holmes said. “I certainly understand (MPS’s) desire to keep the public school system viable and I certainly understand the crunch they feel when students leave their system. At the same time we’re trying to do something that’s unique and the model we’ve developed is one that children in this community need.”

According to enrollment statistics contained in annual MPS report cards, enrollment has fallen nearly 11 percent since 2008 from more than 86,000 to around 77,000.

A 2012 report evaluating achievement and enrollment trends in MPS schools cited the “growing impact of voucher and non-MPS voucher schools” as a major factor contributing to its “ongoing” enrollment declines.

The MPS properties eligible for purchase under the law are: the former Assata High School at 3517 W. Courtland Ave.; the former 88th Street School at 3575 S. 88th Street; Happy Hill School at 7171 W Brown Deer Rd.; Hayes Bilingual School at 2431 S. 10th St.; Lee Elementary School at 921 W. Meinecke Ave.; Malcolm-X Academy at 2760 N 1st St.; Emanuel Philipp School at 4310 N. 16th St.; Fletcher Elementary School at 9520 W. Allyn St.; Dover Street School at 619 E. Dover St.; Garfield Avenue Elementary School at 2215 N. Fourth St.; and the former Wisconsin Avenue School at 2708 W. Wisconsin Ave.

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Ben Stanley, former BizTimes Milwaukee reporter.

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