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.