MILWAUKEE — St. Joan Antida High School has officially notified the Milwaukee Public School District of its intention to bring suit against them if the district does not begin providing transportation for their students to and from school.
In a letter representing the school, the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL) alleged MPS is illegally denying transportation to St. Joan Antida students. The letter, dated Nov. 16, was addressed to MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver, MPS Office of Operations director David Solik-Fifarek and MPS school board clerk Jacqueline M. Mann.
The letter claims that 70 SJA students are entitled to transportation by MPS under Wisconsin Statute 121.54 and includes a confidential listing of those students.
The school is thereby putting MPS on notice that, under Wis. Stat. 893.80, if transportation is not offered within 120 days, St. Joan Antida will file suit against the district for $108,200.
That’s the amount of money it costs SJA annually to provide transportation for its own students, and it’s money that could be going elsewhere, said head of school Paul Gessner. In recent years, SJA has been fortifying its STEM curriculum, hoping to become a destination school for young women interested in science and engineering careers. The school also began to offer the International Baccalaureate (IB) program in the 2014-15 school year.
“That amount of money would cover an entire year’s cost of our International Baccalaureate program. It would cover – with money left over – our entire Girls in Engineering Program; we would be able to add two additional teachers, to be able to offer more electives,” said Gessner. The operating budget of the school is $3.1 million.
Wis. Stat. 121.54(2)(b)1 states students are entitled to transportation to and from their private school “located two miles or more from the pupil’s residence, if such private school is a school within whose attendance area the pupil resides and is situated within the school district or not more than five miles beyond the boundaries of the school district.” St. Joan Antida claims that 70 of their students meet these criteria and still do not receive transportation.
Transportation has always been an issue for SJA, said Gessner, but it was only two years ago that he was told that MPS was paying to bus students at another local Catholic high school. He has since discovered that is not the case, he added.
Intrigued, he asked MPS administration and was told to apply for funding. It was an arduous process, he said, that involved a 90-minute meeting at the MPS central office and the procurement of student birth certificates and other documentation. Two weeks after the meeting at the central office, “I reached out to find out what the status was, and I got an email back saying, ‘We don’t fund high schools,’” he said. “I didn’t know I was doing this for no reason.”
He contacted Brookfield-based nonprofit School Choice Wisconsin, who informed him that it was the law for MPS to bus eligible private school students. They put him in touch with the WILL. In February, under the direction of WILL, said Gessner, the parents of these 70 eligible students assigned their rights over to SJA to collect on their behalf.
“The parents are the ones who have the benefit, not (St. Joan Antida High School),” he said. “The parents signed off on this form that basically said they assigned the rights to the school for collecting these funds.”
When contacted by the Catholic Herald, MPS media relations supervisor Katie Cunningham declined to comment except to acknowledge receipt of the letter and to say the district is currently reviewing its options.
Gessner said he was informed by MPS that it would bus SJA students who live in “hazard zones” or live more than a mile from city bus routes. But that isn’t the law, he said.
“What we have discovered is that they have to treat our students, by state statute, the same way that they treat their own students. They don’t apply that same (hazard zone) standard to their own kids. Kids who are at Rufus King or Golda Meir High School — Golda Meir is less than a mile from here — they bus those kids because they’re a city-wide school even though those kids live near a city bus line. If they’re going to do it for their own students, they have to do it for city-wide schools like St. Joan Antida.”
He said he imagines MPS officials have a “different interpretation” of the statutes or may have a financial incentive to deny transportation to private schools. The MPS superintendent’s proposed 2016-17 budget, posted on the district website, lists its student transportation expenditure as more than $63 million.
St. Joan Antida High School is an all-girls Catholic high school founded in 1954. An independent school unaffiliated with the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, SJA is owned and operated by the Sisters of Charity of St. Joan Antida and is their only school mission in North America.
Several sisters of the order are on staff at the school in the guidance and theology departments as well as on the board of directors. The student body totals 143 young women, 98 percent of whom live at or below the federal poverty level for the 2014-15 school year.
“Our parents are very much in support of us doing what’s right for their children,” said Gessner. “We believe very strongly that this is a justice issue. And if it’s in the law and the rest of the state doesn’t seem to be having a problem with this as a requirement, then we believe that it is important that Milwaukee Public Schools does what it’s supposed to do.”