Mehlville School District buys building next to Mehlville High to replace Central Office

An+aerial+view+of+an+existing+office+building+that+could+become+the+new+Mehlville+Central+Office+at+2900+Lemay+Ferry+Road%2C+from+the+real-estate+listing+in+March+2021.+

An aerial view of an existing office building that could become the new Mehlville Central Office at 2900 Lemay Ferry Road, from the real-estate listing in March 2021.

By Gloria Lloyd, News Editor

The Mehlville School District is set to close in August on the purchase of an office building next to Mehlville High School that could serve as the district’s new Central Office, paving the way for two buildings on the high school campus to be demolished. 

The district is under contract to purchase more than 5.5 acres of land at 2900 Lemay Ferry Road next to Mehlville High School, 3200 Lemay Ferry Road. If the district moves ahead with the $2.5 million purchase after due diligence this summer, acquiring the building and surrounding land would be the first step toward relocating Central Office and demolishing the current district headquarters and the Witzel Learning Center. Both buildings are on the MHS campus. 

The property purchased by the district at 2900 Lemay Ferry Road has a 49,660-square-foot, 2-story office building built in 1983 that currently houses medical offices like Mercy and the Saint Louis Eye Clinic. In addition to that 4.03-acre site, the land purchased also includes an undeveloped 1.58-acre grass lot between the high school and the medical building. 

The existing office building at the site will serve as the future location of the district’s Central Office along with other administrative offices, with the district able to rework the medical space as school offices and shift employees there as leases end. In the meantime, the district would bring in $243,000 in annual rent from the tenants at the building. The building currently has 23-percent occupancy, with the longest lease the district is aware of ending in December 2022. Mehlville officials, however, do not want to function as a landlord long-term. District attorneys are investigating the real-estate contract, how long the leases last and if any major restoration or repair work is required inside the building before signing on the dotted line. The district should know in about three weeks whether to move ahead. 

“In the short term, yeah, we’re going to be a little bit of a landlord,” said Superintendent Chris Gaines. “Long term plan, if we follow through, is to just slowly transition the functions of SCOPE (alternative schooling program South County Opportunity for the Purpose of Education) and Central Office into the building.”

The Board of Education voted to approve the purchase in a closed session at the May 20 meeting. The board also voted in a closed session at a special meeting May 27 to buy land next to Oakville High School that could serve as the future site of an auditorium. That $400,000 purchase closed June 1.

The Call first reported in 2017 that Gaines had suggested, with the full support of the district’s Facilities Committee, that the Central Office and Witzel Learning Center buildings eventually be demolished for green space and their offices moved elsewhere.

The aging buildings that are being replaced are not worth the millions of dollars in repairs that would have to be funded in the next few years to keep them operational, Gaines said. District voters in April passed Mehlville’s first bond issue since 1992, but the $35 million Proposition S plan didn’t include any funding for maintenance on those two buildings. 

The money to buy the land will come out of the district’s reserve fund. The district found out that the property would be available in March, and the list of priorities to be funded by Prop S had already been finalized in summer 2020.

In the four years since Gaines first talked to The Call about the idea to bulldoze Witzel, the building’s ground floor has flooded repeatedly in major rains and cracks so severe have shown up in walls that a structural engineer recommended moving all offices away from one of the building’s four walls. To continue to use the building would require $3 million in maintenance investment, while Central Office next door would need about $1 million.

The Mehlville School District provided this photo of flooding on the ground floor of the Witzel Learning Center, which the district points to as one of the reasons to demolish the building instead of investing in it.

Although Gaines was the first superintendent to speak publicly about demolishing Witzel, the plan had been considered and ultimately rejected as far back as the late 1990s.

The Witzel building was the district’s first high school, known as Mehlville High School, and was built during the Great Depression as a project of the Works Progress Administration under the leadership of then-Board of Education President Louis Witzel, who secured the federal funding. In recognition of that accomplishment, the school board unanimously voted to name that building after the Witzel family in 1994, when Louis’ grandson Kurt Witzel served as board president. The building has housed academic functions and offices over the years as students shifted over to the newer Mehlville High School, on a campus built around the original Witzel.

The primary departments that have to move out of Witzel are SCOPE, the technology department and the print shop. The district has already moved food service out of Witzel.

Most of the district’s administrative offices are located in Central Office, but some of the offices that are currently housed in a district-owned building at Jefferson Barracks could also shift to the new office building. Since Gaines took the district’s top job in 2015, he has remodeled part of Central Office to get rid of the wood-paneled look in the board room the school board used for decades and moved school board meetings to the Mehlville High School Library. But that makeover didn’t change the underlying problems with the building’s HVAC system and windows. There are also sewage and plumbing problems in the bathrooms.

Sometimes the rain comes in when it rains hard in the windows — they’re poorly insulated so it’s a very inefficient building, and we’ve been limping the HVAC along for awhile now,” Gaines said last week. “So we had slated over the next few years that we were going to have to dump about a million into this building in HVAC and windows. Our systems are getting bad.”

The list of facilities needs approved in April by voters did include a new transportation facility to replace the one at Mehlville High School, near the new property. But although the two properties appear to be directly next to the high school, they technically are not contiguous since a house behind the grass lot has a driveway and access to Lemay Ferry Road directly next to the high school’s main entrance, between the district’s old and new properties. Since the properties don’t technically connect because of that driveway, the district is not factoring the new land into plans for the transportation facility. 

A crack in the girls bathroom at the Witzel Learning Center, in a photo provided by the Mehlville School District. Cracks in the south wall of the building led to a structural engineer recommending that all offices be moved to other places in the building.