The Milwaukee Board of School Directors passed a motion to direct MPS administration to consult the school district’s legal counsel on the potential sale or lease of the former Malcolm X Academy property during a special public meeting Thursday night.
The board entered into executive session to discuss the potential sale or lease of the site, located at 2760 N. 1st St. in Milwaukee, before presenting and passing the motion in open session.
Prior to retiring to executive session, MPS Board of Directors along with Board President Dr. Michael Bonds and MPS Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton faced a divided audience of community members, some advocating the site remain in the hands of MPS and others encouraging the board to sell it to St. Marcus Lutheran School.
The meeting brought to the forefront an issue that has been gaining attention and fueling contention among public school proponents and voucher school supporters since nearly January when St. Marcus Superintendent Henry Tyson met with Thornton about potentially purchasing the property, which has sat vacant for about six years.
Malcolm X Academy is one of three MPS sites St. Marcus has requested for proposal and, with 180,000 square feet, remains its top choice as St. Marcus looks to expand its capacity of students served.
According to Tyson, during the two superintendents’ meeting in January, Thornton had said MPS was considering using the building for flex space but that that was not likely.
“He was very, very clear that there was no use for it,” Tyson said.
MPS, however, has unveiled plans in recent weeks to create a community resource center at the former school building. Those plans would encompass educational and recreational programming for students and the community at large.
The plans have been in development for the past three years, according to Bonds and Milwaukee-based JCP Construction, which is helping MPS with design of the plans.
“Nothing happens overnight,” said James Phelps, president of JCP Construction. “It’s a matter of…piecing it together, whether that’s financing, whether that’s just programming. It’s just a work in progress.”
Meanwhile, St. Marcus has publicized its own plans for Malcolm X Academy, aiming to fill it with more than 600 students in grades K4-8 and enroll an additional 300 children in an early childhood development center by next fall. St. Marcus projects that it would invest $5 million-$8 million into the site and would hire more than 100 new staffers.
Tyson was among St. Marcus supporters who spoke at Thursday night’s meeting, urging MPS board members to consider selling the property for the sake of quality education, no matter the kind of school system through which that education is delivered.
“My appeal to you as the board who represents all students in our city is whenever we have a school that is getting the job done, whatever label, is that we rally around it and we help it to grow,” Tyson said to MPs board members. “Because if we do that and we do it unrelentingly, regardless of the type of school that it is, we will prepare our children for the future. The crime that is going on in our city with the gun violence will begin to stop, and our city will be transformed.”
Community members like Bob Peterson, president of Milwaukee Teacher’s Education Association, remain concerned that selling an MPS property to a private school will further hurt MPS’ enrollment and financial resources from the state.
“I agree that we need to work together in this community, but what I’m tired of is people who promote the vouchers and charters telling them yes to work better while they basically say, ‘Fine, we’ll work together if you take the knife out of our back,’” Peterson said during Thursday’s meeting. “And I mean that sincerely because the private voucher program as a whole, and St. Marcus is part of it (but) they’re not responsible for the whole thing, but as a whole the private voucher program has a profoundly negative impact on the Milwaukee Public Schools and has had so for many years.”
Other MPS supporters fear that selling the property to St. Marcus will mean the school will become a closed network that will only benefit St. Marcus students and families.
St. Marcus counters that its current facility, which is located at 2215 N. Palmer St. in Milwaukee and educates about 750 students in grades K3-8, is open before and after school on weekdays and is also open on weekends for educational and community programming.
“We are not just a school,” Tyson said. “We are a community in and of itself. That building is open from 6:30 in the morning till 9:00 at night. It’s open on Saturdays and on Sundays. The community uses it constantly. We are building a community.”
For now, MPS will consult its legal counsel on strategies related to the potential sale or lease of the property.
While Thursday’s meeting sparked fierce debate between proponents of both MPS and St. Marcus, Bonds said he was encouraged to see the public so passionate about its city’s education.
“I feel that it showed that we have a compassionate community relative to education regardless of what side of the issue people stood on,” Bonds said. “I think that speaks volumes for the city of Milwaukee that regardless of people’s different perspectives, one thing that people agreed on was that everyone wants a quality education.”