The end of a stalemate?

Nearly four years after the state legislature enacted the Surplus Property Law, the Milwaukee Common Council finally approved the sale of a vacant school building, the former Hayes Bilingual School, to a public charter school. For the first time, Milwaukee Public Schools and the city seemingly followed state law by voting on the sale without any gamesmanship by the Common Council. Shockingly, the measure passed both the subcommittee and entire Common Council with near-unanimous votes.

Carmen Schools of Science and Technology purchased the former Hayes building to house Stellar Collegiate Elementary School, a public charter school that serves kindergarten to third grade students. Carmen recently announced  that they were taking over the operation of Stellar Collegiate Academy to create a pipeline of students from elementary to high school.  Carmen purchased the vacant building for about $350,000 since it needs significant work due to maintenance that was put off by MPS. Nearly the entire $350,000 will go directly to MPS.

The former Hayes Bilingual School building has been vacant since 2012 and has been available for sale by the city since 2017. MPS was contacted by at least two interested buyers for Hayes in 2012 and 2013, but the building has sat empty for the last several years.

After years of misbehavior by the City and MPS, this is a win for taxpayers. Over the last ten years, vacant school buildings have cost Milwaukee taxpayers over $10 million just to pay for utilities like gas and electric. This is just a fraction of the cost that these chronically vacant school buildings cost MPS and taxpayers. It doesn’t take into account costs like grounds keeping, security and the overall impact that vacant buildings create on neighborhoods and communities.

But this win did not come without significant work on behalf of Carmen and Stellar Collegiate Academy. According to their letter to the Common Council, the schools canvased local residents and businesses, held a listening session for community members and offered several school tours of Stellar Collegiate’ s current campus. To support the sale of the building to Carmen, the school also presented the Common Council with letters from local business and signatures of support from community members. These steps taken by Carmen and Stellar Collegiate are not required in the law.

Over the years, many schools have tried and failed to purchase MPS buildings. MPS and the city have fought the sales at every turn. For example, in 2013 St. Marcus Lutheran Schools, a high performing private school in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), was denied the ability to purchase a vacant MPS building despite offering to pay one million dollars. In 2016, Rocketship, a public charter school, attempted to purchase a vacant MPS building using the Surplus Property law. But MPS demanded that Rocketship change its chartering authority from the city to obtain a charter from MPS instead. Ultimately, the deal fell through. But perhaps the model set by Carmen can be used as a formula by private and public charter schools interested in purchasing an empty MPS building.

Private and public charter schools should be encouraged to use the surplus property law to try and purchase vacant school buildings in Milwaukee. With MPS and the city’s history of blocking building sales, there is reason to be hesitant to label this sale to Carmen a trend, but it’s undeniably a very good step in the right direction.

Libby Sobic  Libby Sobic is the Director & Legal Counsel of Education Policy at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty.