(The Center Square) – A new report alleges Milwaukee Public School leaders hid the truth about its empty school buildings in order to deny private schools and charter schools opportunities in the city. 

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty released the study Tuesday. In it, researchers say Milwaukee school leaders all but lied to make sure they didn’t have to sell empty or surplus school buildings. 

“WILL tracked how the city and MPS enacted this law over the last five years. Our research found that MPS continued to play a shell game with the buildings, labeling buildings to prevent them from being available for sale,” the report states. “For example, MPS labeled Fletcher as a ‘district support facility’ in 2015, as part of an ‘active expansion plan’ in 2016 and finally ‘surplus’ in 2017. The building is still vacant today. The city also ignored specific requirements in the law and allowed MPS to determine which buildings were available for sale allowing for various labeling of the buildings.”

Wisconsin lawmakers tried to deal with MPS’s empty school building problems back in 2015. The legislature passed a law that required MPS to sell the buildings “in good faith” to interested buyers, specifically charter schools and private schools. 

One of the lawmakers who wrote that 2015 law, Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, said the report shows that some of the problems of 2015 have not been resolved. 

“It is clear MPS is more worried about competition than what is best for kids. Unfortunately, Milwaukee bureaucrats will continue to keep kids in underperforming and failing schools,” Darling told The Center Square. “That’s tragic.”

State Sen. Dale Kooyenga, R-Brookfield, also takes issue with MPS’s flouting of the law. 

“These buildings, or properties, can be used to provide the educational opportunities that are in need and hold the key to a more equitable prosperity in Milwaukee,” Kooyenga said. “We will continue to work on the issue.”

WILL’s Director of Education Policy Libby Sobic also said the report is telling. 

“This is a story of hard lessons. Good intentions were thwarted by a lack of taxpayer accountability at the local level. And a state law intended to help meet the high demand for school facilities has resulted in just one sale to a charter school,” Sobic said. “The problems haven’t gone away and it’s time to develop new solutions.”

While MPS has been more than reluctant to sell empty school buildings to other schools, the WILL report says they have been more than happy to sell school buildings to other developers. 

The report found 10 buildings were sold to developers, many with an eye toward turning them into housing complexes. 

The report goes on to say that while there is a demand for more housing in Milwaukee, there is also a demand for more charter school and private school space. 

“Milwaukee educational trends indicate that families are looking for educational opportunities. MPS’s own projections show the enrollment will continue to decline,” the report states. 

MPS’s enrollment has fallen from 82,000 students in 2010 to just over 74,000 students this school year. Meanwhile, enrollment in Milwaukee’s school choice program has risen from just over 20,000 students in 2010 to just under 30,000 students this school year. 

“In order to accommodate the growing interest in the [Milwaukee Parental Choice Program] and nontraditional schools generally, private and public charter schools will have to expand their facilities. Many of the highest-performing schools already have waitlists,” the report’s authors wrote.

The WILL report does not include a price tag for how much the lack of sales has cost taxpayers.

Benjamin Yount reports on Illinois and Wisconsin statewide issues for The Center Square. Reposted with permission.