St. Marcus hangs onto hope as school board delays vote

As St. Marcus Lutheran School continues its pursuit of the former Lee School property, a vacant Milwaukee Public Schools building that closed in July 2009, St. Marcus leaders remain hopeful that the city will work with MPS toward a successful sale.

The fate of the Lee School property, located at 921 W. Meinecke Ave. in Milwaukee, is uncertain as MPS’ board of school directors continues to delay action on the proposed sale of the building to St. Marcus, which is a high-performing voucher school and a competitor for students.

During a June 17 MPS board meeting public testimony was taken at the committee level, and the item was reviewed, but not acted upon, during a June 19 board meeting, according to MPS spokesperson Tony Tagliavia.

Henry Tyson, superintendent of St. Marcus, said he is disappointed but not surprised and now looks to Mayor Tom Barrett and the city to use authority through whatever avenues they can toward a resolution.

“The real question is whether or not (the city has) the will (and) the courage to sell it when they know as clearly as everybody else knows that the district is not behaving in the best interest of children or taxpayers,” Tyson said.

The City of Milwaukee is the titleholder of MPS property. According to legislation enacted in 2011, if the Common Council determines that city-owned property used for school purposes “has been unused or underutilized for at least 18 consecutive months,” it may sell or lease that property.

However, that doesn’t mean that the city automatically has to leave MPS out of the decision-making process, said Jeff Fleming, spokesman for the Department of City Development. The city has not yet exercised its option to skirt MPS’ input.

“We have moved forward seeking ongoing cooperation with Milwaukee Public Schools,” Fleming said in regard to the proposed sale of Lee. “While the city has the right to sell the property, it doesn’t mean we have to exercise that right and exclude MPS.”

St. Marcus hopes to open a portion of a second campus this fall at the former Lee School property, a 78,000-square-foot space 10 blocks from the school’s current campus at 2215 N. Palmer St. in Milwaukee. The high performing college-prep school currently serves 730 predominantly low-income African-American students in K3-8th grades at its home campus.

Upon opening the second campus, St. Marcus would enroll 200 students in grades K3-1st grades. The school would grow to serve 800 to 1,000 students in grades K3-8th grades, according to St. Marcus, and would help relieve its waiting list of about 350 students.

Barrett appears in favor of selling the property to St. Marcus. In a statement emailed to BizTimes, Barrett’s office said, “Mayor Barrett is supportive of the idea, but it is conditional on a payment in lieu of taxes, which includes the revenue the city loses because of the inequity in school choice funding.”

St. Marcus has offered $880,000 for the building – an amount equal to the appraisal value, according to the Lutheran school, which completed the appraisal in collaboration with the city.

St. Marcus estimates that it would invest $13 to $15 million into the property and surrounding neighborhood.

The voucher school began considering the former Lee School property in January when Barrett approached Tyson “with a pretty hearty offer to help us get into a building,” said Christine Safranek, director of development and communications for St. Marcus.

That offer followed nearly three months of intense public debate between public school advocates and the St. Marcus community about the best use of the former Malcolm X School, also a vacant MPS building. Beginning last August, the Lutheran school sought to establish a second campus at Malcolm X.

Instead, in November, the Milwaukee Common Council advanced a proposal made by MPS to sell the building to a developer and lease a portion of it back. MPS intends for the leased space to become an International Baccalaureate middle school. The rest of the property will be mixed use.

MPS declined to comment on details of the plan as the district rolls it out.

“The project is in the planning stages and we regularly update the board as the project progresses,” Tagliavia said.

MPS also declined to comment on the future of the former Lee School property since “it is an open matter before the board,” Tagliavia said.

However, some school board directors have publicly expressed strong opposition to the sale of the property to St. Marcus.

During a June 2 town hall meeting organized by Alderman Russell W. Stamper, II, MPS Board Director Larry Miller questioned St. Marcus’ status as high performing.

“The premise for this proposal is that St. Marcus is a high performing school, and this will add quality seats to Milwaukee’s K-12 schools,” Miller said. “But this school year, St. Marcus reading scores showed only 19 percent of St. Marcus students are proficient in reading. Only 19 percent.”

Part of Tyson’s response emphasized the need for that number to be contextualized as the top performing MPS school, Benjamin Franklin School, holds a reading proficiency rate of 21 percent. Citywide, at schools whose student populations are at least 80 percent African American and 80 percent low income, reading proficiency sits below eight percent.

In a blog posting published earlier this month, Miller also expressed concerned about selling a public school building to an institution with “regressive teachings” that stem from its religious affiliation.

Tyson said St. Marcus set out to purchase Lee because, in addition to the benefits of its size and proximity, there were no other prospects for the empty school and Barrett was supportive of St. Marcus’ expansion. Additionally, Lee was one of three vacant school sites MPS offered to St. Marcus during initial conversations between the two school operators in early 2013.

“It seemed as though it would be a win for everybody,” Tyson said.

The St. Marcus community is still waiting and hoping that MPS will decide to sell the building, according to Tyson, who acknowledged that the timeline is tight but said he isn’t sure why MPS’ school board has yet to make a vote.

“We don’t consider the Lee deal dead, but clearly there are more hurdles than we had anticipated,” Tyson said.

St. Marcus is exploring other expansion options for this fall as “good business practice,” Tyson said. He declined to comment on the details of other options the school is investigating.

Erica Breunlin is a staff reporter at BizTimes Milwaukee

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