Milwaukee Public Schools shies away from selling vacant schools to charter programs that would not add to district enrollment.
That, at least partially, has led to the district spending as much as $1 million per year maintaining 13 vacant schools. Taxpayers cover that cost, and one Milwaukee alderman argues that is too steep a price to pay to let MPS be so selective in who it sells to.
Milwaukee Common Council President Willie Hines on Wednesday made a push for a state law that would let the city decide on the sales of vacant MPS school buildings.
“It would require some investment to turn the lights back on in these buildings, but the charter schools have been willing to do that,” he said, “so we have to welcome that.”
MPS has tried to sell the vacant schools for residential and other redevelopment, but a weak overall market has stymied many of those attempts, said Michelle Nate, the district’s chief of operations.
“We try to keep the buildings up to a high standard so they’re not too far behind,” she said, “especially while they’re being actively marketed.”
MPS heats the buildings, removes snow, replaces windows, cuts grass and performs other routine maintenance, Nate said. It costs money, she said, but the buildings are in ideal shape for reuse.
But rather than attracting real estate developers, the buildings are drawing Milwaukee charter schools interested in expansion.
MPS resists those deals because the district receives state and federal money based on enrollment, Nate said, so it would not make sense for the district to sell space to what amounts to the competition.
Schools such as Milwaukee College Preparatory have tried for almost three years to buy the vacant 38th Street School, said Principal Robert Rauh. It would take $3 million to $4 million to buy and renovate the school, he said, far less than the estimated $9 million to $10 million to rehabilitate nearby empty warehouses and factories.
Rauh said his board is willing to step under the MPS umbrella as long as Milwaukee College Preparatory keeps control of the building.
“We don’t want to lease something for just a couple years,” he said. “That’s not a very effective way of doing business.”
It’s not just the market working against MPS selling the schools for redevelopment, said Mike Ruzicka, president of the Greater Milwaukee Association of Realtors. Older school buildings are difficult to convert into office, retail or residential, he said.
But it’s possible, said Rosann St. Aubin, MPS communications director. For example, the district recently finalized a purchase agreement to convert the former Jackie Robinson Middle School into senior housing.
Still, St. Aubin said, such projects can be difficult.
“We know it can be tough to do such an extensive reconfiguring,” she said. “How many people are going to want an old building that has a sandbox embedded in the old kindergarten classroom?”
It’s the rarity of success in redeveloping vacant schools, Ruzicka said, that justifies sales to other school operations, even if they are competitors.
“I’m surprised no law exists that ultimately prevents a monopoly that allows you to produce a bad product and still have the ability to shut down the old competition,” he said. “That sounds like the old General Motors model.”