By Libby Sobic and Will Flanders

As the Milwaukee Public School District (MPS) grapples with a $30 million budget deficit, the school board continues to play around the edges while ignoring a glaring solution that is right in front of their face.  There are currently 36 MPS schools operating at less than 60 percent of their capacity, according to the enrollment and building capacity data from MPS proposed in the 2018 budget.  These schools are some of the worst in the district.  To save taxpayer money – and perhaps improve student outcomes – MPS ought to explore ways to consolidate and/or rent out space in portions of these underutilized school buildings.    

While it is true that not every school that isn’t at capacity is the same (a newer school like Rufus King Middle, for example), many are empty for a reason: they are low-performing schools. Nearly half of the underutilized schools in MPS —16— are rated as “fails to meet expectations,” the lowest category, on the state’s report card. North Division High School is currently at 37 percent capacity with only 356 students in nearly a thousand student capacity school. Andrew S. Douglas School, a K-8 school, is at only 20 percent capacity. Only one underutilized school—Hampton Elementary School—is rated as meeting the state’s standards.

In addition, underutilized schools represent an important means for MPS to close its budget deficit. According to the MPS budget, staff salaries at such schools are more than $82 million, and the total operational cost of these buildings is more than $133 million. If something could be done to eliminate just a quarter of the cost of these underutilized buildings, MPS could entirely cover their well-publicized budget deficit.  Larger reductions in this excess capacity could result in sufficient savings to help MPS with the even more substantial deficits it faces in subsequent years.

There are a number of ways MPS could reduce capacity. First, there is room to consolidate some of these schools.  Consolidation reduces overhead and staffing costs, and also allow MPS the opportunity to sell a newly vacant building, yielding another (one time) infusion of revenue. A second option might be to share these buildings with high-quality charter schools. This model already exists in Milwaukee, where Carmen, one of the best charter schools in the state, shares an underutilized building with Pulaski High School, a school that currently fails to meet expectations on the DPI report card.  MPS benefits from the agreement by sharing space with schools that can serve as a model for higher performance, as well as financially from renting the space out.

The MPS School Board needs to take a hard look at underutilized schools. These buildings represent not only an opportunity to cut costs but, more importantly, an opportunity to improve student achievement. That is a win-win that is going to be hard to find as the district examines the difficult financial choices ahead.

Libby Sobic is associate counsel for education law and policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.
Dr. Will Flanders is the Research Director for the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.