The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty, a state-based think tank, released a report this week entitled “What Comes Around Goes Around” that describes how the Milwaukee Public School (MPS) district’s obstinate refusal to sell vacant school buildings is contributing to the district’s budget deficit.
The report is particularly timely because MPS is about to start the school year in the red. MPS needs $38 million to close its budget deficit and some district leaders are asking the state to bail them out.
That will be a tough sell. WILL’s well-documented report shows how MPS has contributed to its budget woes by evading state law and refusing to take serious action to liquidate its vacant and underutilized school buildings. The report shows MPS currently has at least 52 buildings that are either vacant or underutilized. The empty space across the district buildings has cost MPS more than $125 million this past year. One of the records obtained by WILL includes a facilities report that describes how MPS paid nearly a million dollars to a consultant company.
MPS’s position appears to be at least partly influenced by ideology. The report explains that over the last two years, choice and charter schools have offered to purchase 11 of the vacant school buildings. They all still sit empty. If MPS sold nine of the buildings currently for sale at the appraised value, they would have netted $5.89 million.
The situation in Milwaukee, which WILL deserves credit for highlighting, is hardly an isolated case. In 2011, then-Senator Tom Coburn estimated the glut of unneeded property at the federal level was costing taxpayers $1.7 billion annually. Congress and the Trump administration are taking steps to try to unload this property, which is not only wasting money but also diverting funds from higher priorities.
In some cases unused property can be the product of neglect. In other cases, unused properties can be mausoleums for failed ideas. When decisions about unused properties are made on the basis of ideology rather than fiscal common sense, unused properties – at either the state or federal level – can become cavernous echo chambers for their owner’s sanctimonious hypocrisy. In Milwaukee’s case, nothing communicates concern for children quite like hanging on to unused property in order to deny a perceived ideological foe the opportunity to produce better outcomes for kids.
WILL believes that in light of Milwaukee evading state law and MPS refusing to responsibly sell buildings, the state legislature needs to step in and make meaningful reforms to the state law in order to force the sale of these buildings. They argue that both taxpayers and the people of Milwaukee deserve no less.
Note: Any similarities to the WILL report and the 1984 hit single “Round and Round” by the popular music group Ratt appear to be incidental. The same could not be said for our 2011 report “Back in Black” which inspired former Alaska Senator Mark Begich to personally deliver an AC/DC shirt to the offices of then-Senator Tom Coburn. The episode demonstrates that quality oversight infused with notes of 80’s music can indeed bring both parties together.