Mehlville school district seeks occupancy permit for St. John’s site


The Mehlville Board of Education recently voted unanimously to authorize administrators to seek an occupancy permit for the former St. John’s Elementary School at Will Avenue and Lemay Ferry Road.

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 the SCOPE program to the St. John’s facility that originally was constructed in 1922.

Established in 1997, Project SCOPE — South County Opportunities for the Purpose of Education — 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 alternative program served 625 students in the 2005-2006 school year, with 319 students coming from the Mehlville School District.

During a special meeting in January, Board of Education 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.

Chambers told the board in December that the relocation to district-owned property would free the district from paying rent at the program’s current site at Grasso Plaza in Affton. He estimated that if SCOPE remains at Grasso Plaza, the cost of rent would be more than $1 million over the next 10 years.

Current estimates for renovating the St. John’s facility range from $1.4 million to $1.8 million, but Mehlville representatives believe the occupancy-permit process will help refine those estimates. Administrators also have been discussing the possibility of having an alternative-school program at a renovated St. John’s facility, which the district attempted to sell, but without success.

The Board of Education’s unanimous vote to authorize the administration to seek an occupancy permit from St. Louis County for the St. John’s facility came near the end of a nearly five-hour meeting Jan. 17.

“All we want you to do is authorize us to file for occupancy with the county, and what that will do, it will remove the mystery about how much we need to do to that building in order to use it … Then we’ll come back to you and we can take this up at a future meeting,” Chambers said before the board’s vote.

During a period for public comment earlier in the meeting, a former board member voiced concerns about the proposal to relocate the SCOPE program from Grasso Plaza to the St. John’s facility. Some of the concerns voiced by Marea Kluth-Hoppe, who serves as president of the Mehlville-Oakville Foundation, echoed those previously expressed by school-board members Cindy Christopher and Rita Diekemper.

“… First, I heartily support the SCOPE program and the SCOPE people that are here. I have attended many events there. I’ve talked with the teachers, students and even parents who have students there. With that said, I have grave concerns about renovating the old St. John’s School for the SCOPE and any other at-risk programs,” Kluth-Hoppe said. “I, too, have toured St. John’s School several years ago, looking at the feasibility of use for that building and viewing the numerous problems that exist. Just a little history — first, the junior-college district left the St. John’s facility because of excessive renovation costs and the impracticality of such renovation. Second, during the Prop P program, the building and site were deemed inappropriate for an educational site for early childhood by qualified consultants and through community input.”

Citing the current proposal to renovate the building at an estimated cost of $1.4 million to $1.8 million, she said, “As noted by the official Prop P audit from RubinBrown, it is important to have accurate and detailed estimates and information before making a decision of this magnitude. A brief look at the renovation costs brings forth a multitude of unanswered questions. For example and these are maybe only a few, HVAC, heating, ventilation and air conditioning is only a $500 estimate in a building with an antiquated boiler and pipe system …”

Kluth-Hoppe also questioned a lack of information about other estimates and costs, adding, “… There’s no contingency fees for any unforeseen problems or underestimated problems. Although it is stated that rent may gross about $1 million over 10 years, much or that entire amount will be spent on various utilities, normal maintenance and upkeep of the building and the grounds, including custodial and maintenance personnel salaries, safety and security issues, and hopefully a plan for contingencies for damages and needed upgrades and improvements.”

She also voiced concerns about the proximity of St. John’s to Mehlville Senior High School and whether community input on the proposal should be obtained.

“But perhaps the most important question is where’s the renovation money of $1.4 (million) to $1.8 million coming from? If it is borrowed, what is the cost to the district over the next 10 to 20 years in interest fees and other costs? If it is not borrowed, will it dip into reserves and that may mean borrowing in the fall of the year to cover other expenses before tax revenues are received?” she said. “As this district has taken numerous cost-cutting measures over the last several years, including cutting teaching staff, curriculum directors and classified staff, is it prudent or a high-priority expenditure?”

Board of Education Vice President Karl Frank Jr. told the Call that he supports the proposal to relocate SCOPE to St. John’s.

“It is true that (former Superintendent) Dr. (Tim) Ricker and the previous Board of Education rejected the use of St. John School as an early learning center. At that point, they decided to sell the property; so they were looking at St. John’s with the glass half empty. However, our current superintendent is not proposing to use the building for preschoolers. Instead, we are looking at housing our SCOPE program and eventually an alternative learning center for high-school-aged kids,” he said.

“Our restructured Central Office recognizes that they are working with a new Board of Education and they are presenting to the board some fresh ideas. They have taken the initiative to look at St. John’s with the glass half full. Yet, there are some ‘glass-half-empty’ stragglers out there still hanging on to the old ways of Mehlville. While I will take all viewpoints into account when making my decision, I have an enormous amount of faith in Dr. Chambers and his recommendation for the St. John’s property.

“The bottom line is that our district needs both of these programs, and it is ridiculous to pay rent for space when we have a heated building that is not being used.”

Frank noted that with the district’s Long-Range Planning Committee, “very little time was spent discussing the needs of older students requiring academic assistance outside of a traditional classroom setting. Even less time was spent on the possibility of utilizing the historic St. John facility. As Dr. Chambers said, we should not be ‘paralyzed’ by a document that falls short of covering all of the needs of our district. There are many positive aspects of the LRP, but its plan, or lack thereof, for SCOPE and an alternative high school are not one of them.”

Details of the financing remain to be finalized, he said, adding, “After everything that happened with Proposition P, the community can be rest assured that we are not going to go into any project without having our financing firmly in hand.”