Sale of MPS Schools Debated by Legislators, Local Stakeholders

Committee Holds Public Hearing on Sale of Vacant School Facilities

MacIver News Service | October 9, 2013

[Madison, Wisc…] The sale of vacant school facilities operated by MPS could see changes under a new bill that had a public hearing on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 318, introduced by Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), would ensure that Milwaukee Public Schools routinely provide a list of the buildings that are currently available for sale and would require those buildings to be offered for sale to only educational organizations for the first 48 months.

This would ensure that charter school programs would have the first shot at purchasing the facility and opening a new school. Currently, MPS can sell these vacant buildings, but Darling said that there is confusion over who has the actual authority to do so.

“The buildings are owned by the city but they are under the authority of MPS,” Darling told the committee. She said that her bill would close the loopholes that were included in similar legislation that passed in 2011.

Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett testified at the hearing in opposition to the legislation. He said that his office and the Milwaukee Common Council unanimously oppose the passage of the bill.

Barrett agreed with portions of the bill that add clarification to who has the authority to sell the buildings and who the city attorney would represent in certain situations. However, Barrett claimed the legislation would infringe on local control by not allowing the city to sell a building to a competitive bidder because they are not an educational organization.

“I feel very strongly that this legislation does exactly the wrong thing when it requires us to hold on to a building for educational purposes only,” Barrett said. “What your telling us is that we have see let this building sit vacant for four years.”

The discussion of the bill’s strengths and weaknesses carried on for more than three hours of testimony. Milwaukee’s Superintendent Gregory Thornton expressed his opposition to the additional pressure on MPS to sell their vacant, unused, and underused buildings.

The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, which did not have an official stance on the 2011 bill that allowed the state to compel MPS to sell these buildings, also registered official testimony against Darling’s bill.

That opposition was countered by a number of charter school advocates, most of whom detailed the struggle to expand their classrooms despite strong grades on the state’s School Report Cards.

Henry Tyson, Superintendent of St. Marcus schools, testified to the struggle to expand his schools despite enormous demand from parents and families in Milwaukee. He called MPS’s reluctance to label non-operational schools as vacant and their ability to keep interested educators from using them as a “shell game” that only hurts children.

Jim Bender, President of School Choice Wisconsin, pointed out that schools that have been trying to buy school property in city limits for decades are being pushed aside by MPS plans that are barely weeks old.

SB 318 clarifies what school facilities would qualify for sale, determines that only an education operator – like a charter school – can make a purchasing bid during the first 48 months, and the common council would need to retain separate legal representation if specified circumstances exist.

The bill text can be viewed here.