Milwaukee Loses Millions As Government Buildings Sit Empty

It’s one thing to have an incompetent government; it’s far worse to have a government actively opposed to progress. Unfortunately, that’s the situation in Milwaukee when it comes to the public school system.

As of last year, at least 17 buildings owned by the Milwaukee Public School system have been sitting vacant and unused for an average of seven years, functioning as nothing more than dead weight for taxpayers. The cost of maintaining them has cost MPS more than $1.6 million.

What has the city been doing about it? Milwaukee has no shortage of buyers interested in taking the buildings off their hands and putting them to good use, but the city has actively opposed attempts to purchase its unused school buildings. For example, Henry Tyson, superintendent of St. Marcus Lutheran School, has been shut down twice in his attempts to buy vacant school buildings. His first attempt to acquire the building that formerly hosted the Malcolm X Academy received a one line rejection letter. St. Marcus organized several marches, which drew media attention and brought the city to the table, but the deal foundered after the city proposed a dubious alternative plan for the building from a real estate developer.

That plan fell apart within a year, and the former Malcolm X Academy continues to lie vacant.

Tyson’s second attempt targeted Lee School, an empty building in one of Milwaukee’s neediest areas. The deal would have been a win for local residents, providing a quality elementary education option and a sizeable property tax payment, but Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett slapped a $1.3 million “school choice tax” on the building — which was only appraised at $880,000 — effectively killing the deal.

A report from the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) lists a number of ways that MPS had been stonewalling the sale of its buildings: “local administrative policies that ban sales of facilities to certain non-MPS schools, the failure of MPS to keep a public list of what buildings are empty and underutilized, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett’s insistence of charging a ‘school choice tax’ as a condition on selling or leasing empty buildings, and the creation of last-minute ‘deals’ done solely to thwart the sale of facilities to schools in the choice program.”

After Tyson’s travails drew national attention, the state legislature passed a new law designed to get MPS to address these problems by submitting an inventory of unused and underutilized school buildings and putting them up for sale exclusively for private and charter schools by October 2015.

It’s at this point that MPS crossed the line from mere incompetence to stubborn political posturing, because officials refused to follow the letter of the law and sell their empty buildings. Instead, MPS continued dragging its feet, exploiting and misconstruing language in the law to stop the sales. This bureaucratic slow-roll has continued ever since.

Those opposed to the sale of school systems’ underutilized buildings to their “competitors” argue that the law is akin to forcing Coca-Cola to sell to Pepsi — but that comparison undercuts their point. As WILL notes in a recent report, “Business firms are disciplined by competition. Failure to provide what the market demands – such as effective educational services – may lead to the firm’s replacement by more responsive competitors. The existence of alternatives helps the public find the solutions that work best for them.”

Following this analogy to its logical conclusion, while competition might make life tougher for businesses, it’s good for consumers — which in this case are children and their families. MPS is a public entity, and accordingly its chief goal should be the public good. In this instance, that means embracing competition in education.

Fortunately, after years of inaction, it appears that the sale of some of these buildings is finally taking a step forward. The Milwaukee Zoning, Neighborhoods and Development Committee recently voted unanimously to recognize five private and charter schools as legitimate education operators and accept their letters of interest in purchasing unused MPS properties.

This is an encouraging development, but given MPS’ past intransigent, the fight is far from over. It’s worth reminding these bureaucrats that every delay directly impacts hundreds of students, and delays their opportunity to get a better education. Hopefully, MPS will stop clinging to the status quo and begin to put children first.