Mehlville school board votes 4-3 to relocate SCOPE to St. John’s

‘… I have to be able to sleep at night …,’ Christopher says before casting ‘no’ vote


The Mehlville Board of Education voted 4-3 Friday to relocate an alternative-education program for suspended students to the former St. John’s Elementary School at Will Avenue and Lemay Ferry Road.

Vice President Karl Frank Jr.’s motion to move the Project SCOPE — South County Opportunities for the Purpose of Education — program to the former St. John’s site was seconded by board member Tom Diehl. Besides Frank and Diehl, board President Ken Leach and board member Micheal Ocello voted in favor of the motion.

Opposed were Secretary Tom Correnti, board member Cindy Christopher and board member Rita Diekemper.

Correnti had announced during a Feb. 13 school-board meeting that he would vote against moving SCOPE to the former St. John’s site.

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.

Interim Superintendent Jerry Chambers told the school board in December that relocating SCOPE to St. John’s would free the district from paying rent at Grasso Plaza.

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 options presented to the board Feb. 13 ranged from $837,041, the “best case for full building usage,” to $382,411, which would involve closing the gymnasium and bottom floor.

Frank’s motion to move SCOPE to the St. John’s site called for the district to spend $837,041 to renovate the building. His motion also called for the district to borrow the money, which will be repaid over a 10-year period. At an interest rate of 4.25 percent, annual payments will be $104,487.93.

At Friday’s meeting, Deputy Superintendent Eric Knost said, “… We have definitely been talking with the board for quite awhile now, no less than a matter of months regarding a decision that I feel’s about kids. It’s been suggested and possibly true that our approach has been a little too simplistic, but I think at the end of the day, this is what it’s truly all about: (Executive Director) Allan Schindler and (Director) Pollie Richardson would like to have a school building for the kids they work with at SCOPE.

“They don’t have a school building. They have a shopping center. It’s nice. It’s worked. If you’ve been there, it’s impressive what they’ve done with the shopping center. But we can do better for them. We have a school building that is currently vacant. Contrary to what some would like others to believe — and I think we can help with some of those misperceptions tonight — St. John is not falling down. Our administration and our extended administration beyond Central Office agrees with us on this,” he said, noting many teachers have expressed their support for the project.

“The county inspectors agree with us, as do our architects — and that was reiterated to me this morning by Dwight Dickinson (of Dickinson Hussman Architects), who wanted me to say: ‘Eric, I want people to know that I am for SCOPE going into the St. John property.’ So I want to be clear on that. We cannot sell St. John — at least we haven’t been able to. We may be able to give it away at a fraction of what it should be worth, but we can’t sell it. We pay to heat it. We pay $18,000 a year just to see it sit there. And amidst every reason that has been brought forth in the name of not making this decision, I think we need to try to gain a little perspective, and that’s what I’m trying to do to a bunch of people I know love and care for kids.”

Knost then addressed concerns previously voiced by opponents of the move, including traffic and security, and a concern that had not been raised publicly until Friday — “earthquakes and the seismic capabilities of the St. John building. Very few school districts have the luxury of utilizing buildings that meet current seismic code requirements … If we truly applied that logic regarding earthquake concerns evenly across our district, we would probably have to start anew with all of our buildings …”

After Knost’s presentation, Christopher said she had “a real significant safety concern” putting students into a building that does not meet today’s seismic standards.

“I am just going to restate that I have concerns about using this building for students … based on Dwight’s information that it is not seismically sound, and I understand the issues and I’ve talked to Eric about it and I think he understands my point. And we’ve agreed to disagree, I believe,” she said.

Knost said, “We have.”

Christopher said, “I do not think that — I think there’s a difference between continuous use of a building that now has been identified as not meeting seismic standards to the day and intentionally putting students back into a building that is the oldest building in our district, except for maybe JB (Jefferson Barracks) … and intentionally putting kids into a building that we know has issues like that.

“I can’t ethically do that. I just can’t. I just can’t. I agree that the SCOPE program deserves a better building. I agree that they need a gym. I can see big benefits for that. But I have to be able to sleep at night and, frankly, if there would be an earthquake — we all know that we’re sitting on a fault. It’s not new information. I just can’t do it …,” she said.

Knost said, “And you know that they’re in a building now with exactly those same concerns. In fact, it was suggested to me this morning that it’s probably a more severe concern where they’re at right now.”

Christopher said, “But it has to meet — it has to meet commercial code over there.”

Knost said, ” … It’s not been seismically retrofitted over there …”

Christopher said, “And that may very well be.”

Noting that Grasso Plaza was built in 1958 and does not meet today’s seismic standards, Diehl said, “… As far as the chance of a child getting injured or killed by an earthquake, you’re talking a very limited situation. The chance of anybody in the United States — and that includes the state of California where they have lots of earthquakes — of anyone dying from an earthquake is 1 in 10 million. It’s not like, you know, we’re putting them at death’s door. It is not a building that is ready to be condemned … Our professional educators are saying that they need this facility, that it would benefit the SCOPE program, help with the education of those kids, which, in turn, helps our district in total …”

“I think we’ve spent enough time going through the figures. I have to salute the Central Office staff for the research they’ve done and for crunching all the numbers, for working with the architect and St. Louis County and coming up with realistic estimates. And because of that, I think it’s time to move forward …,” Diehl added.

Diekemper objected to the move, saying that with the financing option proposed, it would take nearly 20 years for the district to break even on an operating-cost basis.

Noting that she has the “utmost respect” for the work done by Richardson and Schindler, Diekemper said, “I think that we should do better for that program and I think we can. And I think our facilitators for the long-range planning would agree with that. I think we can do better for all of our kids.

“Option 1, though, by making that decision, you’re locking that into break even, assuming that you don’t even do anything else with the building, you’re locking that into a 20-year — that means you’d have to occupy that building for 20 years for that to make financial sense with that program — for that to make financial sense without adding anything new to that building versus what we are currently doing.”

Diehl said, “Well, the renovations …”

Diekemper said, “And I just, it’s not — I’m not asking for a debate … And so I’m just saying that I’m not willing to lock in, which this could be done next year. It could be determined by the long-range planning that this is best use and that we do want to lock in for 20 years into that program and maybe add more to it and do it right. I’m just saying that with that, I’m not willing to lock in for someone’s decision for that for 20 years when there is a viable option right now.”

After further discussion, the board voted 4-3 to approve Frank’s motion to relocate SCOPE to the St. John’s site.