The state’s largest school district may be in a financial crisis, but a new study may show them a way out. However, it’s unlikely Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) will listen to its own consultant to deal with the empty classrooms that are a drain on the school district’s budget.

A study by the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) shows that MPS is wasting millions on vacant and underutilized buildings even as the school district is facing a $38 million budget deficit. This is happening despite efforts by the state legislature to force MPS to sell the vacant buildings to charters schools and schools in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).

“This is an issue that goes on every school year,” said CJ Szafir, the Executive Vice President of WILL, in an interview on Tuesday. “The legislature keeps on tweaking the law and MPS keeps on finding loopholes.”

The study by WILL shows MPS has at least 52 buildings that are either underutilized or vacant. In the last two years, choice and charter schools have offered to buy the eleven vacant buildings. If MPS had sold just nine of the vacant buildings, the district would have netted $5.89 million. However, while the buildings have sat vacant they have cost MPS $10.2 million in utility costs over the last ten years.

The study by WILL of the vacant and underutilized schools also looked at a report by an MPS consultant that found 42 schools operating at less than 70 percent capacity.

“They determined that last year those empty seats in existing Milwaukee Public Schools buildings cost taxpayers over $6.1 million dollars,” Szafir said.

That MPS consultant study, which cost the district nearly a million dollars, also recommended MPS shedding itself of excess facilities given the reality of continued declining student enrollment for the district.

“Their consultant with their million-dollar report is essentially telling MPS to do what so many of us have been telling to do for years, which is they have to get serious about their facilities,” Szafir said. “According to the consultants’ report, facilities is the second biggest cost driver for the schools, and yet facilities constantly eat away at their finances because they refuse to follow state law to sell vacant and underutilized school buildings.”

Szafir said the MPS consultants’ report said that there are going to be 7,000 more empty seats in the school district in the next ten years, an over 50 percent increase in the number of vacant seats.

“They conclude, which again, a lot of us in the education reform community in Wisconsin and those in the state legislature have been saying, that those buildings have to be sold,” Szafir said.

MPS, with the help of the city of Milwaukee, has resisted the sale of the school buildings to charter and choice schools because the district sees these schools as competition for students.

According to Libby Sobic, associate counsel at WILL and one of the study’s authors, the legislature needs to strengthen the state law that requires MPS to sell the vacant buildings.

“We think that adding something like an enforcement mechanism to hold the city accountable for the games that they play,” Sobic said. “Or clarifying what is a vacant building and not allow MPS to sort of play a shell game with these buildings. Those changes would really make the law work more effectively and help force the city and MPS follow state law.”

Another option for the legislature is to consider a more radical approach to the problem, according to Sobic, by following what other states have done with districts with declining enrollment that have held onto vacant buildings.

“States like Arizona and New York, they have created different laws to force districts to either co-locate charter schools or sell the buildings for much lower rates so these buildings are being used,” Sobic said.

Indiana actually has a state agency that oversees the sale of the vacant school buildings, according to Sobic, that was created because of the problem of school districts with declining enrollment refusing to sell vacant buildings.

As for co-location, MPS already has a successful experience of a charter school and a regular MPS school sharing space in what would have been an underutilized building.

“Carmen charter school is the charter school, it co-locates at Pulaski High School, which is an MPS high school,” Sobic said. “While it’s definitely a success now, you may recall that it was a very close vote at the MPS school board. There was a lot of push back from the district in order to even get a school like Carmen, which is one of the best performing schools in the city, to go into Pulaski, which is considered one of the worst.”

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