The other day, the newsamapaper had a story about how difficult it is for the Milwaukee Public Schools to unload its empty school buildings. These buildings need to go--there is no reason for MPS to hang on to them, and every chance I get to talk to anybody with authority (even potential authority, as I've talked about his to board candidates), I say sell them soon. But this is no easy task.
There are eleventy hundred reasons why this is true: bad real estate market; old buildings full of asbestos and otherwise not up to code; many of the properties in relatively undesirable locations. There are two significant reasons, though: one, as the paper reported, there's a deed restriction on the properties that makes it hard to sell them to other, non-MPS schools; and two, there is Administrative Policy 5.01(9) (pdf):
SCHOOL PROPERTIES DISPOSALThis policy specifically dictates that the primary concern of the district in unloading vacant buildings is returning the sites to the private sector, which would help rebuild Milwaukee's sagging tax base. This policy, unlike the deed restriction, is not specific about what kind of non-profit or public entity the Board is discouraged from selling to: the top priority is getting properties back into private hands, period.
In disposing of surplus school buildings and sites, the Board shall be guided by the following priorities based upon recommendations from various planning agencies, the needs of the school system, and input from the staff:
1st — Sale, for non-public purpose, with the goal of returning as many properties to the tax base as possible.
2nd — Lease with maintenance and operations activities performed by the district. Lease must cover all cost to the Board of School Directors.
3rd — Sale/lease to other governmental agencies.
I point this out because, as is now the norm with any story involving MPS, no matter what the story actually is, there is a massive, simultaneous, knee-jerk response among the illiterati: IT'S ALL THE UNION'S FAULT. (Hence the title of this post; the substance of a story about MPS has little to do with the ultimate reaction.)
If you think I'm kidding, consider that before 8:30 that morning the comments blaming the union already started popping up on the Journal Sentinel story linked above, with such gems as "The only way is our way; the union way," and "I guess the reporters should have gone to a reliable source, like the teacher's union to find the real truth, right? Lol!"
This morning's story about two pols' plan to use state law to coerce MPS to sell or lease buildings to its competition is infested in the same way in its comment thread.
And there's this "Quick Hit," from Reader Advisory Committee member Thomas C. Burtnett (my emphasis): "Milwaukee Public Schools won’t sell even one of (only!) 27 empty school buildings to St. Marcus Lutheran School or Milwaukee College Prep, both 'high performing' charter schools [ed: St. Marcus is a voucher school, not a charter school] because the school would be operated 'in competition' with MPS. [. . .] This isn’t the 'public' talking. I smell a union."
Let's be clear: The union has no control over MPS administrative policy. Nothing, literally nothing in the MPS-MTEA contract has a thing to do with the size, shape, and location of the district's physical plant. Period.
Buh-buh-buh-buh-but the union buys the school board elections every year! I can imagine Burtnett or Charlie Sykes or the "Lol" geniuses on the comment threads at jsonline saying. Well, it seems like as good a time as any to remind people of reality on that front, as well. There are nine members of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors. Two of those nine--just two!--had union support in their last contested election. One of those nine had union support but ran unopposed. So of the nine members of the MPS board, six of them, a supermajority if you're counting, were opposed by the union in their last election. That's a 2-1 advantage for the non-union board members. To suggest that Board policy, then, is a product of the union or written at the direction of the union, is just dumb.
The fact is, MPS's policy of wanting first and foremost to move vacant properties into private hands and back onto the tax rolls makes sense. That MPS is acting like a business in "competition" with its actual competitors also makes sense; indeed, one of the biggest selling points behind the voucher movement is that "competition" is good for public schools. As much as Milwaukee Metro Association of Commerce head Tim Sheehy is blaming MPS's competitive attitude for their refusal to sell properties to voucher schools, it's Sheehy himself and his organization (plus groups like School Choice Wisconsin, on whose board Sheehy sits) that have long supported making the Milwaukee education sector into a competitive marketplace.
In fact, you could probably say that Sheehy, MMAC, voucher supporters, and charter pushers are much more responsible for MPS's reticence to sell than their preferred scapegoat, the union.