Mehlville school board sets special meeting to consider moving SCOPE to St. John’s

Board told cost to renovate St. John’s substantially less than originally thought

By MIKE ANTHONY

A proposal to relocate an alternative-education program for suspended students to the former St. John’s Elementary School at Will Avenue and Lemay Ferry Road is scheduled to be considered this week by the Mehlville Board of Education.

The proposal to move the Project SCOPE — South County Opportunities for the Purpose of Education — program to the former St. John’s Elementary School is set to be considered during a special meeting at 5 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23, at the district’s Administration Building, 3120 Lemay Ferry Road.

Any motion to relocate the program from its existing location at Grasso Plaza in Affton to the St. John’s facility almost certainly will receive at least one “no” vote. Board Secretary Tom Correnti said during a Feb. 13 school-board meeting that he is opposed to the proposal and will vote against moving SCOPE to the former St. John’s site.

Board members have been discussing since December a proposal by interim Superintendent Jerry Chambers, Deputy Superintendent Eric Knost and Project SCOPE Executive Director Allan Schindler to move SCOPE to the St. John’s building that originally was constructed in 1922.

Established in 1997, Project SCOPE offers education to students in eight school districts who have received extended suspensions. Besides Mehlville, the program serves Affton, Bayless, Hancock Place, Lindbergh, the Special School District, Valley Park and Webster Groves.

The program served 625 students during the 2005-2006 school year, with 319 students coming from Mehlville.

At a special meeting in January, board members, administrators and other district employees toured the former elementary school. After the tour, board members voted unanimously to authorize the administration to develop plans for the use of the St. John’s facility, which the district attempted to sell, but without success. The board also voted unanimously last month to authorize administrators to seek an occupancy permit for the building from St. Louis County.

Chambers has told the board moving SCOPE to district-owned property would free the district from paying rent at Grasso Plaza. He has estimated that if SCOPE remains at Grasso Plaza, the cost of rent would be more than $1 million over the next 10 years.

Administrators also have been discussing the possibility of having an alternative-school program at a renovated St. John’s facility.

Correnti’s comments that he would oppose the proposal came after board members were told moving SCOPE to St. John’s would be substantially less than originally anticipated. Previous estimates to renovate the building ranged from $1.4 million to $1.8 million, but three options presented to the board last week totaled:

• $837,041, which would, according to administrators, be the “best case for full building usage.”

• $582,411, which would include replacing the roof and gluing down loose tiles on the main and upper floors, and closing the gymnasium and bottom floor.

• $382,411, which would include patching the roof and gluing down loose tiles on the main and upper floors, and closing the gymnasium and bottom floor.

Those estimates include the cost of meeting the requirements for an occupancy permit — $196,425 — based on an inspection by county officials.

At one point, board member Rita Diekemper asked about financing options to renovate St. John’s.

Knost said, “… We’re not recommending financing options. We’re recommending that we would pay for it. It would be a one-time shot. It wouldn’t be a recurring cost every year …”

The deputy superintendent noted that the most expensive option would total roughly 0.99 percent of the district’s projected operating-fund balance. An operating-fund balance of $8,562,158, or 10.10 percent — including food service, activities and athletics — is anticipated on June 30.

The projected operating-fund balance totals $2,755,875 more than what was anticipated when the board adopted the 2006-2007 budget last year. An operating fund balance of $5,806,283, or 6.88 percent — including food service, activities and athletics — originally was projected.

Board member Micheal Ocello said he heard from some residents who voiced concerns about moving SCOPE to St. John’s, specifically citing the proximity of the building to Mehlville Senior High School and asking about the safety of students there.

Knost said, “I’m glad to address that because I’m passionate about it … I don’t think a lot of folks understand what SCOPE really is when they make comments like that. SCOPE is not a rehabilitation program. We send kids to SCOPE — unless they are in their senior year last semester — a big majority of the time our goal is to bring them right back to the high schools once they finish their stretch there. And again, they’re not going there to be rehabilitated.

“A couple of the phone calls that I received they used the terminology ‘troubled students.’ I don’t like that description, but what I think of troubled students, students with emotional needs, they aren’t at SCOPE. They’re in our traditional schools. It’s illegal for us to put students that come to us with special needs into programs like alternative schools. We don’t do that … But our goal is always unless they’re going to graduate from that program because of where they’re at in their high school year, our goal is to bring them back to school. The other thing is there’s a big percentage — Alan can probably talk numbers for you — but kids that are there by choice working on their GED Options program. They’re not there because they’ve been suspended. They’re not troubled kids. They’re there because they are choosing to work on their GED Options program.

“So I … think when people call me and say: ‘These are troubled kids and need to be removed from the regular setting,’ they don’t understand what the SCOPE program is. I also give a little concern when people refer to proximity. I don’t know what that says to Affton in that for the last 10 years, it’s been two blocks from an elementary school in the Affton School District. We have had zero complaints …,” Knost said.

Schindler later said, “I would echo what Eric said. I won’t use one of those labels because those labels gripe me. When we use one of those labels for those kids, quite honestly, some of those kids are nieces and nephews of some people we know pretty well. We’ve had some very professional people have their kids in there six weeks just because that kid did something really silly. We’ve had 4.0 (grade-point average) students. We’ve had National Honor Society officers, and I’m talking about ‘referred for disciplinary reasons.’

“So when we use one of those terms, we’ve got to be careful, we’re probably insulting someone in our family down the road somewhere … We’ve had staff (members’) students in there. We’ve had staff ask us to take some of their kids on certain occasions …”