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St. Marcus Makes an Aggressive Push for MPS Building

Voucher school plans to enroll an additional 850 students in Lindsay Heights

Jun. 18, 2014
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The Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) board will be taking up a fast-tracked offer by St. Marcus Lutheran School to purchase the shuttered Lee Elementary School in the Lindsay Heights neighborhood.

St. Marcus has been building its case for the school in well-attended community outreach meetings in which parents of St. Marcus stressed the need for another site for “strongly Christian” education underwritten by state taxpayers.

According to St. Marcus School Superintendent Henry Tyson, the school would like to renovate and reopen Lee this fall with roughly 200 K3 through first graders. Eventually, it wants to expand on that site and enroll 750-850 students through the eighth grade.

But first St. Marcus needs the approval of both the MPS board, the Milwaukee Common Council and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett.

St. Marcus hopes to gain the Common Council’s approval at its June 24 meeting. For that to happen, the MPS’s Accountability, Finance and Personnel Committee would have to approve it on Tuesday, as the Shepherd goes to press. The full MPS board would need to sign off on it June 19 before sending it over to the city’s Zoning, Neighborhood and Development Committee, which would have to call a special meeting before the Common Council’s June 24 vote, according to Sara Roemer, assistant director of development and communications for St. Marcus.


A Change in Sale Process

St. Marcus’s fast-tracked bid for Lee Elementary comes amid controversy over how MPS disposes of its unused buildings and the state support for religious schools in its voucher program.

Republicans and some members of the Common Council have been pushing MPS to sell off its unused or underused buildings to avoid the ongoing maintenance costs. Legislation authored by state Sen. Alberta Darling and suburban Republicans last fall would have forced MPS to sell its underused buildings to an “education operator,” defined as a charter or private school operator or an entity that wants to set up a charter school. After being blasted by Common Council members for rigging the real estate market in favor of loosely regulated charter or voucher schools, the bill passed the full Assembly and one Senate committee but didn’t make it to the Senate floor.

At roughly the same time, St. Marcus was trying to purchase the vacant Malcolm X Academy. The MPS board decided to redevelop it as a mixed-use community center instead.

MPS leaders gave St. Marcus three more options: Lee Elementary, Garfield Elementary or Edison Middle School. Tyson refused all of them, claiming that they were too small, outdated or far away from the school’s main campus. Now, St. Marcus is having a change of heart and is aggressively pushing for Lee Elementary, which was closed in 2009.

The process for a potential sale of an MPS facility also seems to be up in the air.

Earlier this year, the St. Lucas Lutheran School in Bay View had indicated an interest in purchasing the vacant Dover Street School; St. Lucas already uses some of the other school’s property as a playground and parking area.

St. Lucas didn’t make a formal offer on the Dover Street School, but the MPS board voted to turn the facility into affordable housing marketed to teachers. The local alderman, Tony Zielinski, pushed the developers to scale back their proposal and the Common Council asked for more involvement in the sale of MPS facilities.

The city is developing a memorandum of agreement with MPS for MPS’s disposition of its unused properties but as of Tuesday, the draft agreement wasn’t on any committee agenda. 


Skeptical About Test Scores

On another front, St. Marcus is making claims about its student performance, saying that the school is outperforming MPS students in all areas by a “wide margin,” according to the St. Marcus website.

Count MPS Board Director Larry Miller, vice chair of MPS’s Accountability, Finance and Personnel Committee, as skeptical about St. Marcus’s claims about its “high-performing school.” 

Miller said that those claims are overblown and compare St. Marcus’s elementary school students to all of MPS’s, including its high school students.

The difference between St. Marcus’s state test scores and MPS’s aren’t significant, Miller said, although at 20%, MPS’s special needs student population is more than double the 9% of special needs students St. Marcus says it educates.

Miller also noted that MPS seventh graders are performing better than St. Marcus’s in both math and reading. According to fall 2013 data from the state Department of Public Instruction, just 17% of St. Marcus’s seventh grade students and 15% of its eighth grade students are proficient in reading. That compares to 17.4% of MPS seventh graders and 17% of MPS’s eighth grade students who are proficient or advanced in reading.

Miller scoffed at St. Marcus’s attempt to promote itself as a high-performing school.

“At the eighth grade, in our 116 elementary and middle schools, we are testing higher than they are,” Miller said.

He’s also analyzing the demographics of the area to determine whether MPS should reopen Lee to serve the neighborhood’s kids.

“I want it to be a public school,” Miller said.


‘Strongly Christian’ Education

A religious education seemed to be St. Marcus’s biggest asset, according to testimony given by supporters at a June 11 community meeting, organized by the neighborhood’s new alderman, Russell Stamper II, and attended by the city’s Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux; state Rep. Joe Sanfelippo (R-West Allis), a voucher supporter; MPS Board members Michael Bonds, Larry Miller and Annie Woodward; and Alderman Nik Kovac. (Stamper didn’t respond to the Shepherd’s request to comment for this article.)

Both St. Marcus and St. Lucas participate in the taxpayer-funded voucher program and are members of the conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS). This is the extreme wing of the Lutheran Church, which asserts that the Roman Catholic pope is the Antichrist, condemns homosexuality as a sin, teaches the belief in evolution and the age of the earth as 6,000 years old and prohibits women from voting in church meetings.

St. Marcus employee Kerry Guzman, whose child attends the school, urged Milwaukee leaders to sell Lee because 200 students are waiting for a “Christ-centered education.”

“As a Christian educator, I’m really excited because we have the chance to empower the children at St. Marcus with the love and the respect to show others in the community the love that Christ first showed us,” Guzman told the audience.

But MPS backers questioned whether the city should sell an MPS asset to allow a religious voucher school to expand, which they say ultimately penalizes taxpayers and leaves MPS with a higher percentage of special needs students, who require more resources to educate.

“What we’re seeing in Milwaukee is the development of a two-tier school system, a school system that has a large number of students with special needs, students who are difficult to educate, and a private school system that doesn’t have to adhere to certain state and federal anti-discrimination laws,” said Bob Peterson, the head of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). “That’s not fair. That’s not what we need for this community.”


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