CBS 58 Investigates: Why are taxpayers spending millions on abandoned MPS buildings?

CBS 58 Investigates: Why are taxpayers spending millions on abandoned MPS buildings?

MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) – Millions of taxpayer dollars are being spent on vacant MPS buildings and many haven’t been operating for years. Milwaukee’s Department of City Development believes a state law could be preventing them from selling the vacant schools faster.

Touring a vacant Milwaukee Public School building

CBS 58 News was allowed access to tour the former Phillip Elementary School. The school hasn’t been in use in more than 10 years. While we were walking through the building we saw broken floors, paint, and wood chipping from the window panes. There was glass all over the former classrooms and the former school office was trashed. The building manager tells CBS 58 News it was from people throwing rocks and the windows and others who have broken into the former school. The manager also says they’ve found people sleeping inside. The building manager said there was mold in the kitchen, but refused to show us the area, he said for our own safety. A 2017 report of Phillip Elementary found asbestos in places like the ceiling, floor tile, an oven, pipe insulation, radiators and window, and door caulking.

Former Milwaukee Public Schools 

Phillip Elementary is one of four vacant schools currently on the market. Since 2015, it has cost taxpayers $2,757,000 in utilities to keep the vacant schools up and running. The money comes from a yearly building maintenance budget. The City of Milwaukee puts the buildings up for sale, and while they’re on the market, MPS maintains them and shows the buildings to potential buyers.

“Because these buildings sit there vacant, they're not paying property taxes, in fact, they do the opposite, they keep your property taxes high,” State Senator Dale Kooyenga said.

The law behind how vacant MPS buildings are sold

State Senator Dale Kooyenga was part of crafting a state law that says the first two years a vacant school is up for sale, it can only be sold to other education operators, like a private or charter school. Kooyenga says the 2015 law was put in place because he believes MPS is reluctant to sell to other educators.

“If you talk to people on the ground, especially if you talk to them off the record a lot of them will say, well this is a market share thing, they don't want to give up any space that's going to take more of their students away,” Kooyenga said.

The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty represents a choice military school that was interested in a vacant school, but claims MPS made the process to purchase the school so complicated their client couldn’t buy it.

“I think that the problems exist because we have unwilling sellers, but we have interested buyers so we have to figure out a way that this process can be better so that way high quality private and public charter schools can expand,” Director of Education Policy at WILL Libby Sobic said.

Why the city says educators aren’t interested

Martha Brown the Deputy Commissioner of the Dept. of City Development tells CBS 58 News that it’s not that they don’t want to sell to private or charter schools, but that those educators simply don’t want to buy the buildings because of the conditions they’re in.

“They don't meet current codes for school use, many of them are not handicap accessible so in order to re-use them they have to make many interior changes, most of them have asbestos inside that has to be remedied prior to re-occupancy of the property,” Brown said.

In about four years the city received 36 letters of interest from education operators, but only three of them made offers. Rocketship, which is a public charter school in Milwaukee, looked at one of the former MPS schools, but later withdrew their offer after taking a tour of the building. The school bought a former school located in a church inside. The school opened this summer.

“We could have renovated it, but it was just cost-prohibitive for us and this building here was running as a school recently so it's not as expensive,” Regional Director of Rocketship Schools Brittany Kinser said. 

Who is buying them?

Brown tells me the city is getting interest in the buildings, but it’s coming from buyers who aren’t in education. Since 2015, six former schools have been sold, but only one of the schools was bought for education use. The other buildings were bought for things like housing. There are also three more vacant MPS schools that currently have sales pending with plans to be turned into affordable housing. Brown believes the law restricting the sale to only other educators during the first two years is preventing them from selling the vacant buildings sooner.

“Two more years of vacancy, two more years of aging in an already old building that needs a lot of work, so we think that discourages re-development in a timely way,” Brown said.

The city believes it’s simple, private and charter schools don’t want to buy the buildings. In the meantime, taxpayers are footing the bill to keep them up and running.

“I think the buildings have a lot of potential for redevelopment but the promise that has been sold that these automatically can be re-occupied as a school, it just isn't true," Brown said. 

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