by Glen Gilzean, Jr.

A struggle over an empty school building in Milwaukee speaks to the growing conflict between urban districts that are losing enrollment and school choice operators who are eager to take advantage. As a School Board member in St. Petersburg/Pinellas, Florida, I saw the same tensions.

Selling vacant property can generate much-needed capital for school districts and eliminate an unnecessary maintenance expense from the books.  For example, Milwaukee was spending more than $1 million a year trying to maintain the vacant schools. But selling the building to charter entrepreneurs also can mean potentially losing students, and funding, to schools of choice.

St. Marcus Lutheran School, a high-achieving voucher school, and Milwaukee College Prep, a charter school, both sought to purchase the long vacant Malcolm X Academy building. But the Milwaukee Public School district refused the offers, prompting a Wisconsin legal institute to accuse officials of “playing shell games” and “skirting the law.” District officials have kept many buildings off the market claiming they still want to make use of them.

The plan for the Malcolm X property calls for the district to sell the vacant building to a local developer for $2.1 million. The developer will then remodel half the building into a community center and rent the other half back to the Milwaukee Public School District for a fee of $4.2 million. Without question, the proposed deal is controversial.

Milwaukee isn’t the only school district that seems to be using its control of real estate to halt the expansion of school choice. According to a recent Education Next report, blocking access to vacant buildings is a common tactic of urban school districts. It also happened here in my own back yard in the Tampa Bay region.

Similarly to north Milwaukee, south St. Petersburg — where I represented parents and students from District 7 — serves primarily low-income minority students with few options. Convincing high-achieving schools of choice to serve this student population would be a blessing for many. Fortunately, the State Legislature passed laws to encourage cooperation between school districts and schools of choice.

Florida statute 1002.33(18)(e), in the K-20 Education Code, requires districts to allow charter schools to use surplus, or otherwise unused, school buildings in the same manner as a district school. Despite the law’s clear intent, Florida districts find ways to delay or block lease and sales agreements.

In Pinellas, the district owned about a dozen vacant properties worth more than a quarter-million dollars a year to maintain and repair. Selling vacant buildings – whether it was to be used as a community center or a new school — was extremely rare.

Looking back on our board meetings, it is not hard to see why. Before any discussion of selling real estate, the district’s finance officer would remind board members how many millions were lost to school choice. This was probably no coincidence.

I’m sure the same apprehensions are expressed in Milwaukee and elsewhere.

That’s not to say there weren’t genuine concern for students or taxpayers from my fellow board members. As stewards of taxpayer dollars, some of us openly worried about selling buildings below market value. Indeed, the Tampa Bay Times exposed considerable waste as the district sold surplus property at cut rate prices. But those real fears became excuses. And when it came to property that might be used for education competitors, district administrators tended to set the prices quite high.

Southside Fundamental School in St. Petersburg was a prime example. It had been vacant since 2009, and several charter school operators came to the district seeking to lease or buy the property. Publicly, the district entertained offers but then questioned the operators’ ability to buy, repair and maintain the property. Privately, officials worried that approving a sale would lead to a flood of education and community groups seeking to use surplus district buildings.

If we approved one, so went the thinking, we would have to approve more. And that would mean more students transferring to schools of choice and fewer dollars for our bottom line.

After a dragged-out fight, the district finally agreed to sell the building for $1.1 million, leaving the new operator, University Preparatory, just three months to clean up and remodel the ramshackle school before the new year began.

Sadly, it may be some time before more school leaders elevate their thinking about school choice, but cooperation between district leaders and schools of choice is increasing. As school choice becomes normalized, we will begin to see charter schools and private schools as just another public option. In that environment, empty school buildings no longer need to be a source of anxiety and conflict.

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