MPS meeting on Dover St. School building leaves questions unanswered

The excess space owned by the Milwaukee Public Schools has been in the news a lot lately.  Wednesday in Madison, for example, the state Senate held a hearing on a bill that would force MPS to sell buildings to interested charter or voucher school operators even if students or teachers were using the building.  A press release from MPS noted that up to 3,500 children could be forced out of their schools – even at successful schools like Golda Meir – and MPS would lose valuable professional development space.

Once these buildings are sold, the district would also lose the ability to reopen schools to meet changes in enrollment and demographics, potentially forcing MPS to spend money to build new schools or lease space.

This bill, by the way, is not sponsored by anyone who represents Milwaukee’s children and families.

It is in this climate that MPS held a community meeting Wednesday night to discuss an idea floated by Teachtown MKE, a group spearheaded by the Greater Milwaukee Committee to try to attract the best young teaching talent to Milwaukee and its schools.  The idea, modeled after similar programs in places like Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New Orleans, offers low-cost housing to young teachers.

In a very brief and not terribly informative presentation at the meeting, GMC’s John Daniels (also a real estate attorney with Quarles and Brady) said that for the 2013-2014 school year, 648 new teachers had come to Milwaukee and 109 of them were placed into housing by a service called Find Your Spot that worked with GMC and Teachtown.  Daniels suggested that as Milwaukee’s teacher needs continue to grow, it will keep being difficult to find places for those teachers to live.

Hence the Teachtown idea: build affordable housing for new, young teachers who want to live with other teachers in an apartment-like complex.  And the suggested location is Dover Street School in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood, a building that has been vacant for several years.  GMC’s Leah Fiasca told me after the meeting that consistently, when asked where in the city they want to live, young teachers and other professionals say Bay View, making a site like Dover attractive.  The project would be done by private developers, so no tax dollars would go to the renovation or purchase of the building.

But when MPS advertised this meeting, it was not completely clear that the meeting was designed simply to learn about the Teachtown proposal to convert Dover to teacher housing.  On its Facebook page, for example, MPS said it was “a community meeting to discuss use of former Dover Elementary Building.”

So at the meeting – as at the hearing in Madison earlier that day – a contingent showed from St. Lucas school, a Milwaukee Parental Choice (voucher) School associated with a church adjacent to the Dover building.  Dressed in school colors and carrying laminated St. Lucas signs, a few dozen parents, teachers and children were there and clearly ready to ask that the space be made available to them.

St. Lucas has long been using or sharing Dover’s parking lot and playground, but, as MPS board member Meagan Holman, who represents Bay View and hosted the meeting, told me, they had never asked for the building itself before Wednesday, when Principal Mike Koestler spoke both in Madison and at the meeting, stating that St. Lucas has donors lined up and is ready to make a bid if the building is to be put up for sale.

Lots of other community members were there, too, and wanted to advocate for the space to be used in other ways – as an MPS school again, as space for Bay View High School to expand its “creativity and innovation” curriculum and more.  But Holman, perhaps to deflect what might have been an ugly public school vs. voucher school fight, didn’t allow real discussion of what the space could be besides housing as proposed by Teachtown.

So in the end, the meeting was a waste – not much information presented on the Teachtown proposal (Daniels’ presentation was accompanied by a slide show exactly two slides long, one of which was a picture of Miller’s Court, the teacher housing development in Baltimore) – and no chance to really discuss other uses of the space.

MPS’s Gina Spang, Director of Facilities and Management, did offer some perspective on the Dover building in response to questions. Since the building was vacated by MPS, she said, there had been “two or three dozen” different people or groups that had expressed interest in Dover, touring the space and considering possibilities, but all of them had walked away. Dover was built in 1889, and would take a lot of work (Holman told me $800,000 or more) to make it ADA compliant as a school building and to do other infrastructure updates.

The closest anyone’s come to have a realistic plan to use the space before now was “The Hive,” a proposed artists’ community that never came about because fixing the space was a huge task.  Spang did say that two developers – unnamed, but apparently present at the meeting – had submitted letters of interest to MPS about doing the Teachtown plan at Dover, but that nothing had gotten to the stage where there were any real numbers, such as the cost of renovation, number of units and so on.

But that information had to be, well, pried might not be the right word, but we had to ask for it.  And even once we had it, it didn’t do anything to clarify the matter.

In the end, Holman said she would hold another meeting that would be more open to public comment. I hope that one is better organized, and offers better information than the first one – and that MPS is better prepared to handle the nasty fight coming over spaces like Dover.

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