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Wauwatosa School District seeks to block UWM charter school

June 12, 2013

The Wisconsin Historical Society said this week it supports the proposed use of the Eschweiler buildings by the Forest Exploration Center for its University Lab School, but the school now faces a challenge from the Wauwatosa School Board.

The School Board has passed a resolution urging the governor to strike a clause in the state budget that allows the charter school to go forward as planned.

The district's movement against the University Lab School is one of two question marks remaining in the effort to build housing near the Eschweiler buildings. The other is the project's requirement of $2.5 million in city financing, which would be provided by a tax-incremental financing district created around the site. The funding needs Common Council approval.

Without the city funding, Alderman Dennis McBride said, the effort to preserve the Eschweiler buildings is a non-starter. He urged people and groups in the community "to put pressure on the Common Council" to approve the TIF financing.

"All of this will be for naught in terms of preserving the older buildings if the Common Council doesn't vote for that TIF," he added. "It's a message that really needs to get out, and it has been lost."

A perfect fit

The Mandel Group, a developer, has spent two years working on a way to build apartments at the Eschweiler site. The biggest challenge has been what to do with the old buildings themselves. Too costly and inefficient to rehabilitate into housing, and yet, in the eyes of the community, too valuable to tear down, the lack of a plan for the buildings has stood in the way of the housing proposal, seen as an important part of the development of Innovation Campus.

The buildings were designed by noted Milwaukee architect Alexander Eschweiler, and historic preservation proponents want to see them standing well into the future.

The Forest Exploration Center's interest in leasing the buildings, fixing them up and operating a school out of them was seen by the city, the UWM Real Estate Foundation, which owns the campus, and The Mandel Group, as a perfect fit.

If the FEC can raise $2 million toward rehabilitation in about two years, all four of the buildings would be preserved. If it fails to raise the money, only the largest of the buildings will remain, with two others reduced to walled gardens.

The school plan

The FEC's University Lab School would be a charter school sponsored by UWM. To make that possible, the Legislature has inserted a clause in the state budget package that would allow charter schools to operate independently of public school districts if they are sponsored by UWM in the five-county metro Milwaukee area.

The Wauwatosa School Board, believing the district stands to lose students — and the funding for those students — if University Lab School is allowed to open, passed a resolution Monday asking Gov. Scott Walker to remove the charter school clause from the budget.

"Let's say that they draw 100 students from the Wauwatosa School District," Superintendent Phil Ertl said. "Right away that's at least $700,000 that would go to that charter school. ... It's hard to reduce costs to make up that difference."

Board member Phil Kroner said UWM could sponsor other charter schools in Wauwatosa if it liked, further eroding funding and the number of students in the district, and possibly prompting the closure of a school.

"I don't think it's an important problem," John Gee, executive director of the forest center, said of the district's concerns. The school would be regional in its draw, he said, and Tosa schools might lose, not the 100 students Ertl mentioned, but "10 to 30 kids." Those students, if they were unhappy with the Tosa schools, might have chosen to attend a school out of the district anyway, Gee said.

Even if the governor removes the charter school provision, "I don't think it necessarily eliminates the possibility of the Forest Exploration Center," Phillip Aiello, senior development manager of The Mandel Group said. "It may make it a little more challenging for them to move forward, but I still would anticipate them moving forward and having our support."

If the school is blocked, another suitable entity might step forward, or, if not, The Mandel Group could implement its Plan B, preserving just the Administration Building, and reducing two others to walled gardens.

City approval pending

The charter school provision is just one element of the complex plan that would allow Mandel to build its proposed $40 million, 192-unit apartment complex in a semi-circle around the historic buildings. The project's intricate structure — McBride called it "fragile" — involves not only the developer and the University Lab School, but the UWM foundation, the city, the city's Historic Preservation Commission, Milwaukee County and the Wisconsin Historical Society, not to mention private lenders.

The city's Historic Preservation Commission approved Mandel's plan for the Eschweilers last month, and last week, after a presentation by Mandel's Aiello, reacted favorably to a design plan for six or possibly seven new buildings, most if not all of them, three stories. The plan, by architect James Shields of Hammel, Green and Abrahamson, shows buildings designed to complement the historic buildings.

"We're trying to produce a kissing cousin, but not mimicry," Shields said.

The commission will consider final approval June 19.

The state weighs in

In addition to the city panel, the Wisconsin Historical Society has a say in the disposition of historic buildings. Its role in the case of the Eschweilers was confused by the sale of the property from the county to the UWM Real Estate Foundation, which did not include a covenant specifically protecting the property.

Chip Brown, government assistance and training specialist for the society, said all parties were aware of this problem, and "we are all working as if there are covenants to ensure to the greatest extent possible that the buildings are preserved."

Brown said the society was "fully supportive" of the University Lab School's plans to use the buildings. He also said of the new buildings proposed by Mandel that he wasn't sure if the society had review authority of the new construction, "but we've also received assurances from Mandel that their design will be compatible with the Eschweiler complex."

Brown said, given the years that have passed without any activity or interest surrounding the Eschweilers, and the possibility that they would be lost, "I'm not going to quibble too much about what Mandel's design may or may not be because I think that what we're looking at is a substantial project."

Ertl said he was unsure of his next step if Gov. Scott Walker allows the charter school provision to stand.

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