Mehlville School District to negotiate with MoDOT cost of signal on Telegraph

Representative encourages board to negotiate with state.

By EVAN YOUNG

Mehlville officials want to move forward with a new traffic signal for Oakville Middle and Wohlwend Elementary schools, but decided last week to see by how much they could reduce the school district’s share of the project cost.

The Board of Education voted unanimously March 25 to authorize the superintendent to negotiate an offer with the Missouri Department of Transportation to install a signal on Telegraph Road at its intersection with the Oakville Middle-Wohlwend shared campus.

MoDOT’s engineering policy requires school districts to fund half the construction cost of a permanent school signal and to pay all the design, right-of-way and utilities costs associated with the project.

A local department engineer told the Call recently that MoDOT would not bend its 20-year-old policy because it didn’t have enough funding to fully pay for school traffic signals and still maintain Missouri’s roads and bridges.

However, Superintendent Terry Noble told the board last week he’d received “unofficial” word from MoDOT that it could pay for the engineering study at Oakville Middle-Wohlwend and half the construction cost for a new signal if the district contributed $100,000 to the project. The money would come from the district’s maintenance capital fund, and is less than the $350,000 MoDOT officials previously have estimated for the district’s share, he said.

He speculated MoDOT unofficially lowered the district’s share of the cost due to the efforts of Donna Seidel and Rosemary Nagy, district parents whose group has been fighting to get a fully functional signal with pedestrian push buttons and crosswalks installed at no cost to Mehlville.

The group, Turn on the Signal, successfully persuaded MoDOT after several years to switch the light at Point Elementary School — also on Telegraph Road — from only flashing yellow to a fully functional signal last May.

Both Oakville Middle and Wohlwend Elementary were built in the 1960s. At the time, Telegraph Road was a two-lane highway, and the area wasn’t as developed as it is today. The road was widened to five lanes in 1999. In the decade since, Turn on the Signal contends, vehicle accidents have increased near the campus because MoDOT failed to plan for traffic control when adding more lanes.

During a presentation to the school board last week, Seidel and Nagy told the board they’ve gathered more than 1,000 signatures from district residents who want a signal installed at the shared campus.

“Our main point in recruiting people for this effort has been ‘at no expense to the Mehlville School District.’ We don’t feel that this is a project that is within our scope of responsibility, and that responsibility needs to be placed back with the state to rectify the situation,” Seidel said, noting it would be the school board that makes the final decision.

“… How will the Mehlville taxpayers view the use of funds for anything other than the benefit of their children’s education and safety as it relates to the schools, buildings, security and what not? This is a matter of public safety where all members of the community … will benefit. And our question is, why not use the funds that were paid by all Missouri taxpayers when registering motor vehicles or purchasing fuel?

“… It should’ve been part of their (MoDOT’s) planning project to widen the highway from two to five lanes,” Seidel told the board. “If they didn’t assume there would be increased traffic volume, there would’ve been no need to widen the highway. And now it’s making those left-hand turns even more dangerous.”

Board member Drew Frauenhoffer said, “Are we in a position to negotiate and hold off? Because I’m in a position where I’m torn about it. Your argument is perfect in terms of spending money that could go into the classroom for something that the state should do. But knowing, again, that the state has limited resources, can we wait a little longer and keep with your effort and energy to put the pressure on? … We’re probably going to have to pay something, but how low can we go? Is this as low as we think we can get or can we get it down to $50,000?”

“It seems to me … in your presentation everything you’ve talked about, which I agree with, has to do with student safety,” board member Micheal Ocello said. “So we’re talking about kids going to school, functions at the school, buses at the school.

“It seems to me that it’s not that far-fetched to say that we’re the school and we should participate some. Now the question is how much, but I’m not so sure I completely understand how as a school we say: ‘We have no responsibility,’ but at the same time we go: ‘We need it because of the kids, the buses and parents taking their kids to school.’ I’m not sure I get that.”

Holding up a large stack of yellow petitions, Nagy replied, “This is what Donna and I mobilized. We’re representing all these people tonight. But I’m also a realist, too … They’re going to make you guys cough up some money.”

Also present at last week’s board meeting was state Rep. Sue Schoemehl, D-Oakville, who told Seidel and Nagy that their work has made a “big difference, because … the people on top have heard the message.”

However, she said, the state currently is “budget-weak,” and lawmakers recently had made cuts to MoDOT’s funding.

Still, Schoemehl, whose own children attended school on the shared campus, encouraged the board to negotiate with the state for a new signal.

Noble told the Call on Friday that details of his negotiations with MoDOT — and the subsequent offer from the district — would be discussed by the school board in a closed meeting, though the final board vote on a signal proposal would be public.

The superintendent said the district’s capital maintenance fund pays for building and grounds projects, such as roofing or asphalt work. Therefore, the district’s cost to MoDOT for a traffic signal — $100,000 or otherwise — wouldn’t directly affect operating expenses, such as textbooks, he said.