Catholic school files claim after Wisconsin school district refuses to sell vacant building

Wisconsin school Cheryl Sporie, chair of the board of trustees at St. Thomas Aquinas Academy in Marinette, Wisconsin, stands in front of the vacant Garfield Elementary school building in the Marinette School District. Sporie filed a claim against the district on June 25, 2024, urging the district to sell the property after it refused to sell it to the Catholic school. | Credit: Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty

A Catholic school has taken legal action after a Wisconsin school district refused to sell it an elementary school building that has sat empty for two years. 

The former Garfield Elementary School building in the Marinette School District in northeastern Wisconsin has not been in use since it closed in 2022. The district listed it for sale at about $300,000 but later rejected a full-price offer from St. Thomas Aquinas Academy (STAA), saying that it could create competition for the public school district and citing declining enrollment. 

“If [the building] was owned by another entity that provides these similar services, more dollars could go to that entity, which then has an adverse impact on our taxpayers,” Marinette School District Superintendent Corry Lambie said in February.

Cheryl Sporie, the STAA chair of the board of trustees who made the offer, filed on June 25 a claim against the district with the nonprofit conservative law firm Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL), urging the district to sell the property.

WILL Associate Counsel Lauren Greuel called the school’s decision a “slap in the face to the community,” citing cases of crime at the empty school building.  

“The school district ought to prioritize the safety and concerns of the public before their own,”  Greuel stated in a June 25 press release. “By not selling this vacant building, residents, taxpayers, and property owners are on the hook for lower land values and rising crime rates.”  

The elementary school building is in the ideal location for STAA, several blocks away from its current middle and high school building in Marinette. The school’s current elementary building is in a different city, Peshtigo, which is about a 15-minute drive. 

STAA has a long history in the area, according to its website. The academy was officially founded almost 20 years ago when it merged together local Catholic schools that had been in the area in some form for more than 100 years.

“We are not trying to take business away from them, we are simply trying to provide a better service for the students in this community already enrolled in our school,” she explained. 

“While the district has discretion in determining to whom it would like to sell the Garfield property, it cannot continue to use taxpayer dollars to maintain the building it is not using,” WILL Counsel Cory Brewer and Greuel noted in their June 25 claim notice to the school district. 

“Given that the Garfield property has not been used as a school for the last two school years and has declined to sell it, the district has no authority to continue to hold the building or to spend taxpayer money to maintain it,” they wrote.

Brewer and Greuel also noted that the empty building has had 25 separate incidents where the police were called in the past two years, including cases of trespass and vandalism. 

“By refusing to sell the property and continuing to leave it vacant, the district is creating a public nuisance and exposing taxpayers to additional harm and expense due to the potential for serious property damage caused by one or more of these past incidents and future similar incidents,” the counsels said.

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