Mehlville considering alternate sites for new early childhood center

By Alyson E. Raletz

St. John’s Elementary School might not be razed to make room for a new Mehlville School District early childhood center.

Administrators recently announced alternate sites are being considered for the early childhood center because of site development problems associated with the St. John’s property.

The early childhood center is the final project that will be constructed as part of the district’s Proposition P districtwide building improvement program. Mehlville voters approved a 49-cent tax-rate increase in November 2000 to fund Proposition P, then estimated to cost nearly $68.4 million. The Board of Education this fall approved a revised budget totaling more than $86.7 million for the building program.

Preliminary design work performed by Dickinson Hussman Architects indicates that site development will cost $470,000. The district could not provide an original cost for the site development. The district has budgeted $2.636 million to construct the new center.

Beyond unexpected costs, Superintendent Tim Ricker told Proposition P Oversight Committee members Nov. 25 that the center’s preliminary design also raises aesthetic concerns — causing administrators to look into other locations for an early childhood center. Since September, district officials have been concerned with access and many other issues at the St. John’s facility, Ricker told the Call.

Because of the traffic light on the corner of Will Avenue and Lemay Ferry Road, he said access onto Lemay Ferry is not a good option. The highest point for access on Will Avenue, however, is 15 feet above where the bottom of the building would sit.

“So you actually would come off of Will Road and if you’re sitting three feet up in your car, your line of sight is on the roof top of this building,” Ricker told the Call. “We think that’s a problem.”

Other disadvantages to the St. John’s site, according to Ricker, are problems with driveway codes, the front of the building actually would face the rear of the property, asbestos and lead paint would be exposed while razing the property and the site would offer no future expansion opportunities. He noted advantages to the property include it is the site originally approved for Proposition P, the public knows its location and it sits on land the district owns.

The Nov. 25 announcement at a Proposition P Oversight Committee meeting was the first public notification that the district may deviate from the original recommendation from the Citizens’ Advisory for Facilities Committee to use St. John’s as the early childhood education center site. No discussion of problems with the St. John’s facility was raised during an open meeting of the Board of Education meeting until Dec. 1 during an Oversight Committee report by Chairman Chuck Van Gronigen.

Cost estimates for constructing an early childhood center on the Mehlville High and Beasley Elementary school campuses were presented Nov. 25 to Oversight Committee members.

Site development at the Mehlville High campus would cost the district $1.275 million, nearly half of the school’s overall Proposition P budget. Conflicts at this location include moving transportation, traffic congestion and limitations on future expansion. Advantages of the site included that the district already owns the land and additional parking would be available.

Site development at Beasley Elementary would cost $365,000, which is $105,000 less than site development costs at St. John’s.

Disadvantages to the Beasley site, according to documents from the administrators’ presentation, are that it, like Mehlville High, was not the original Proposition P site recommended by the CACF.

Advantages include district land ownership, improved road access, its proximity to an elementary school and that the Beasley site is acceptable to current early childhood center administrators.

Ricker told the Call that Kathie Fuchs, early childhood center director, and Barb Ehlen, coordinator of Mehlville’s Parents as Teachers program, both had indicated they favor the Beasley site because of future programming that could be conducted with the elementary school.

Noting the CACF had recommended St. John’s as the site for the early childhood education center, Van Gronigen told the Call that the Oversight Committee voted 7-3 Nov. 25 to seek public input regarding the early childhood center site problems.

“Rather than decide we know better, the committee thought it better to re-engage the community and tap them for input.” Van Gronigen said. “The spirit of Prop P is to engage the public and to make significant changes without engaging them wouldn’t be in the spirit of Prop P. The committee just thought it was the right thing to do.”

Ricker told the Call he plans to schedule a public forum, based on the committee’s request, to gather input from the community as to how the district should proceed with site selection for the early childhood center. He said he will invite all former members of the Citizens’ Advisory for Facilities Committee, the Early Childhood Center Task Force and the center’s Mom’s Club to the forum.

Forum details should be finalized by the end of the year, he said.

Board members did not offer any comments Dec. 1 concerning St. John’s after Van Gronigen’s report.

However, according to Ricker, board members first learned of site development problems at St. John’s during a closed session closed to the public.

“I’m gonna say in October we told them, there’s, you know, the site’s got some problems and we need to consider, you know, looking at some options and going through the … Oversight Committee,” the superintendent said.

Ricker said board members directed administration to explore site options on land the district does not own.

“From that perspective, the board was saying, well, we need to know if there is land or isn’t land available, so we probably ought to talk about, you know, hooking up with Gino Pucci (of the Lechner Realty Group) again, like we did for other land developments we’ve been interested in the past.” Ricker told the Call.

When asked if this discussion with board members was conducted during a closed session, Ricker answered, “Exactly and contracting him (Pucci) and what are we going to do and things of that nature.”

Ricker emphasized the district is considering options and no decision has been made.

He said he is concerned that staying with St. John’s site would take a large chunk of funds away from the school for site development, leaving less money to accommodate the building to specific programming needs that would benefit children.

“That’s the biggest concern I have,” he said. “The site development is going to eat into program and we’re going to have to put a building up that’s less than what the CACF wanted for program and what the Early Childhood Task Force wanted for program.”