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MPS struggles to meet construction needs

Sean Ryan

The Milwaukee Public Schools capital budget cannot keep pace with the district’s deferral of projects.
Ultimately, the district might choose to tear down the buildings it cannot afford to fix.

The MPS proposed 2010 budget includes $20.1 million for construction — $3 million less than the 2009 adopted budget. But the 2010 work does not cover more than $20 million in backlogged maintenance work on buildings with an average age of 69 years, said Gina Spang, MPS director of facilities and maintenance.

“We do the worst of the worst — that gets our highest priority,” she said. “You are always going to have some level of maintenance that needs to be addressed.”

Instead of trying to keep up with the backlog of work, the district should consider for sale or demolition the older buildings that are too expensive to maintain, said Jeff Spence of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors.

The evaluation should discount concerns about building use in terms of students and classes and should be based on the cost of maintenance, he said.

“We’ve been caught up in this discussion about declining enrollment and facilities use based on program success, but at a certain point you have to look outside of the programs,” Spence said. “Which physical plants deserve to remain? Which physical plants are costing the taxpayers too much money to maintain?”

Yet Spang said the district should not determine the fate of buildings based on maintenance costs alone. MPS must consider what those buildings are used for, she said.

“I think that just because a building is very old doesn’t automatically put it in a category of demolition or sale,” she said.

In the next two years, the district can borrow up to $146 million for projects through the federal stimulus plan, Spence said. Before spending the stimulus money, though, the district should determine which buildings are worth keeping, he said.

“It’s low or no interest bonds,” Spence said. “The question is: Do you try to utilize that on deferred maintenance?”

The district is making deferred maintenance its priority for stimulus spending, Spang said, followed by energy-efficiency projects. Yet, she said, MPS, like many government agencies, will never completely eliminate its backlog of work.

The best it can do is manage it, Spang said.

“While we have a significant amount of deferred maintenance, it’s a managed plan,” she said. “So at least we know what’s out there, and we can put a dollar amount to it.”

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