Sunday, September 17, 2017


By Dominique Paul Noth

With the end of the legislature's fetish to control MPS properties,
the old Wisconsin Ave. School is being converted
into an extended stay Ambassador  hotel
Lurking within beat writer Tom Daykin’s fine story on how the former Wisconsin Avenue School (near 27th St.) will be converted by 2019 into an extended-stay companion to the Ambassador (the hotel is a few blocks away) was an unwritten  political reality. The Madison legislature’s constant intrusion into local affairs continues to backfire into delays, blind alleys and higher costs for the citizenry. (And just wait till the new budget spits its venom.)

I’ll define what a real estate journalist cannot (and the JS editorial board probably should).  The development is fruit of the collapse of one Madison effort at interference.

That was the misguided command that vacant or underutilized Milwaukee Public Schools’ buildings must be sold only to voucher school or charter competitors, freezing for two years any city effort to develop commercial uses on nearly a dozen properties. Technically, the city owns these school buildings.

If you look at that two-year moratorium, it was never about robust neighborhood development but imposing the march toward private and religious schools on the community, inventing a demand for such schools that clearly didn’t exist. It also intended to hold MPS’ head deeper under water.

If you look at what now is happening, retail and apartment developments are spurring ahead in the Harambee, Bronzeville and other inner city neighborhoods (even the Ambassador is expanding the popular definition of the Downtown area).

All this also gives the lie to arguments that the city of Milwaukee is only interested in developing the core Downtown area.  Turns out, once Madison leaves the city alone or offers real help, good things happen for the tax base.

Once the moratorium ended, the Ambassador Suites became only one of four commercial developments (retail,   apartments or mixed) rushing forward using MPS properties – and there are others in the wings.

Moreover, city development deputy commissioner Martha Brown reminded me in an interview, before the moratorium shut things down for two years, there were several MPS properties either completely or in the process of being converted into commercial use – the old Jackie Robinson School now the Sherman Park Senior Center; Garfield in Bronzeville (2205 N 4th St.) almost ready for mixed use, and Fifth Street School (2770 N. 5th St.) already under apartment conversion.

It was a sign that, despite agitation from Madison that these were all dead weight and invented claims that MPS was the culprit, there was a lot of life being snuffed out in the fabrications.  The city even had to fight off a lawsuit threat from the rabid right-wing WILL (Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty) when it tried (appropriately it turns out) to finesse the moratorium rule.

While there were feints of educational use from MPS competitors, Brown says only Rocketship’s intention to use Carleton as its upper northwest campus is still active (national data on Rocketship profitability keeps me a doubter) while another negotiation with a religious voucher operator has stalled.

The moratorium was inserted into the 2015-2017 state budget as part of an enormous education failure aimed at Milwaukee known as the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, brainchild of Dale Kooyenga and Alberta Darling with such cheerleaders on the side as Leah Vukmir.

Failure may be too optimistic. It is, legally, still a vulture poised to swoop down on the hardy local pioneers of public education and peck out the eyes of real progress.

OSPP (my emphasis would be on the PP) would have an administrator chosen by County Executive Chris Abele (city Mayor Tom Barrett was too savvy to be the whipping boy) seize MPS schools designated within the boundaries of “failed schools” by the state – and sell the losers only to education privateers. In other words, MPS properties would be used to prop up its enemies.

The administrator, Demond Means, was chosen, tried to change the plan, resigned and departed the state for Georgia.  The whole idea was laughed out of public court when the MPS survived the “failed” designation within the state’s boundaries.  (That was also a measure of how well the MPS has been improving schools.)

Sidelining these school businesses for MPS competitors was originally intended by legislators to make properties available for a dollar or so to education privateers, under the invented demand for such schools. But the city insisted on heeding land assessment for what in several cases were valuable pieces of real estate, as opposed to the original penalty to any expansion of property tax rolls.

The landscape immediately changes when private schools are forced onto an even playing field. (That reality is already chilling the state’s expansion of the voucher school idea into the whole state, since many school districts, even conservative ones, are quite happy with the public school route and correctly see the voucher schools as siphoning off public money.)

There is also an interesting sidelight to those who remember Right Step. It was the only private school that responded during the moratorium, forcing the city to sell it the listed Centro del Nino at 500 E. Center St., actually a bank building converted into a Head Start program but included on the master life for MPS schools though the area was not zoned for a school.   With strong anger at the whole idea from Ald. Milele Coggs, the zoning appeals board turned the idea down.   

Brown and others speculate that a big part of the push was the fallacy that all a private education operator had to do “was get in the building and turn on the lights,” since MPS had been a highly regarded absentee landlord and was only closing buildings over decades to retain flexibility in the face of changing demographics (which made some neighborhood schools obsolete). 

Of course “walk in and turn on the lights” wasn’t true since there remained considerable costs on long closed schools (handicapped accessibility, repairs, lead pipes, new code standards, etc.). A lack of common sense was another factor in how bad this idea was, because an MPS building usually went vacant when demand in the area for a school had fallen off, so it wasn’t demographics and need,   just the rising money the state taxpayers were forced to pay that explained the interest.  

And how that money is rising! That state legislature, with Gov. Scott Walker as gang leader, has elevated the voucher goodies as high as $75,647 for a family of four.  The new budget does even more, as much as $9,800 per student by 2019.

Amazingly, despite that come-on and constant expansion of the limits, around the state there are few takers – and it is not surprising that most of the responders are not public school participants but children from families attending private schools already. They are in effect getting a state taxpayer discount of $7,696 each on their private school tuition.

So in Milwaukee there was no land rush – and actually crippling of some neighborhood commercial development.   Assessing the value of a school building is difficult depending on the intended use, noted Jeff Fleming, a spokesman for the mayor who is also deeply involved in the Department of City Development.  MPS was probably not happy that Wisconsin Ave. School, land-assessed at $800,000 under some scenarios, was sold to Ambassador developer Rick Weigand for $100,000.  But the MPS and the city were assuredly comforted that Weigand has also pledged half a million in environmental cleanup as part of a $15 million project.

Because of changing expectations in the master list of MPS buildings, two schools – Fletcher and 68th – still have a year left when they can only be sold to private school operators. There don’t seem to be any takers while the city anticipates movement by commercial developers on other sites now lifted from the moratorium.

Bottom line -- the “school choice” liars actually held the city of Milwaukee hostage for two years in growing neighborhood development. That’s the exact opposite of what elected representatives should be doing. Brown says MPS has been cooperative in conversion efforts, exposing another lie from the school choice camp.

There are several emerging opportunities for citizens to punish such feeble education thinkers, including rabid right-winger Vukmir, who has wrapped herself around these failed education policies to run against Sen. Tammy Baldwin.  Ideology sinks her –what is keeping her campaign afloat is billionaire Diane Hendricks and single-issue voters who don’t seem to give much of a damn of what happens to our children and taxes.

About the author:  Noth has been  a professional journalist since the 1960s, first as national, international and local news copy editor at The Milwaukee Journal, then as an editor for its original Green Sheet, also  for almost two decades the paper’s film and drama critic. He also created its Friday Weekend section and ran Sunday TV Screen magazine and Lively Arts as he became the newspaper’s senior feature editor. He was tapped by the publishers of the combining Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for special projects and as first online news producer before voluntarily departing in the mid-1990s to run online news seminars and write on public affairs and Internet and consumer news. From 2002 to 2013 he ran the Milwaukee Labor Press as editor. It served as the Midwest’s largest home-delivered labor newspaper, with archives at  In that role he won top awards yearly until the paper stopped publishing in 2013. His investigative pieces and extensive commentaries are now published by several news outlets as well as his culture and politics outlets known as Dom's Domain.  His award-winning theater reviews appear at

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