Charter school set to start in former church — FFRF contests ‘sweetheart deal’ for Madison church

A new Madison, Wis., public charter school set to operate in a former church has drawn the attention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. FFRF is also asking for a review of why the property has maintained tax-exempt status while it appears to be vacant and not being used for worship services.

FFRF is a national state/church watchdog with more than 1,350 Wisconsin members, including several hundred in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

In a Nov. 23 letter to Superintendent Daniel Nerad, FFRF noted that the district has signed a letter of intent with Mount Olive Lutheran Church to operate Madison Preparatory Academy at 4018 Mineral Point Road. The property has been for sale since 2009. The church has moved to Whitney Way.

“Representatives for the school have said that the plans include spending more than $1 million dollars on improvements to the church property in addition to monthly rent,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “The school has not offered any details publicly on how the $1 million would be spent. The school’s financial plans state that rent would be $12,600 per month for the first year and nearly $24,000 per month for the second and third years. The charter school lease would be for three years, and thereafter the school ‘intends to move one or both of its schools into one or more permanent facilities that can appropriately handle the school’s growth to 820 students.’ ”

Gaylor called that “a windfall” for the church. “Public funding would be used to finance permanent improvements to the church. Simply put, public funds should not be used to renovate churches. The property is listed for sale for $1.45 million. By the end of three years, the church would receive upwards of $725,000 in rent in addition to the benefit of $1 million in improvements, no strings attached, with no further use or benefit to the taxpayers.”

When the agreement ends, Madison Prep will be homeless, and Mount Olive will have been enriched by $1.75 million in taxpayer funds, noted Gaylor, calling it an unlawful public subsidy of a ministry and a place of worship. The Wisconsin Constitution (Article I, Section 18) states, “[N]or shall any money be drawn from the treasury for the benefit of religious societies, or religious or theological seminaries.”

FFRF is hearing from many members who oppose merging public education with religious institutions with school vouchers and charter school church locations. “Supporters of these changes say they are justified as they offer cost savings,” Gaylor said. “The principle of keeping public education public is far more important than short-term cost savings, but in this case, the MMSD proposal would waste, not save, public funds. It is fiscal folly and unacceptable.

“As a school that receives public funding, Madison Prep needs to find an appropriate alternative or should outright purchase the church property. Entering into a sweetheart deal with the church is not the solution.”

The letter to the school district follows up a letter sent Nov. 9 to city of Madison Assistant Assessor Mike Kurth about the property, which is listed as being exempt from taxes under the “religious” designation, while its use is “vacant.”

FFRF understand the difficulties that Madison Prep must undergo in finding a suitable location, Gaylor said. “But we ask that Madison Prep not take shortcuts by cutting a check to the church in order to get the school up and running as quickly as possible, which will end up costing taxpayers far more than if they actually purchased the building. Housing a public school in a church is wrong, and subsidizing permanent improvements to the church cannot happen on the taxpayers’ dime.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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