Mehlville superintendent proposes plan to raze Witzel Learning Center, Central Office

The+Witzel+Learning+Center%2C+pictured+the+night+the+Mehlville+Facilities+Committee+agreed+by+consensus+to+tear+the+80-year-old+building+down.+Photo+by+Gloria+Lloyd.

The Witzel Learning Center, pictured the night the Mehlville Facilities Committee agreed by consensus to tear the 80-year-old building down. Photo by Gloria Lloyd.

By Gloria Lloyd, Staff Reporter

By Gloria Lloyd
Staff Reporter
news3@callnewspapers.com

The original Mehlville High School building most recently known as the Witzel Learning Center has stood along Lemay Ferry Road for nearly 80 years, but it may not make it to 90.
Superintendent Chris Gaines hopes to move forward with a plan to tear down the Witzel Center and the Mehlville School District’s Central Office next door. He proposes purchasing property elsewhere to house administrative offices and the other departments and classes that currently occupy the buildings, which are on the Mehlville High School campus at 3200 Lemay Ferry Road.
The district’s Facilities Committee had no reservations signing on to Gaines’ proposal at its most recent meeting Aug. 31, and the plan could go to the Board of Education as soon as October.
“I was sitting in the parking lot tonight in my car, and I was looking at it saying it’s got to go,” committee member Greg Frigerio said of the Witzel Learning Center.
Witzel can’t come down a moment too soon, member Tim Hudwalker said.
“That should have come down a long time ago,” he said. “It’s better being a grass lot.”
The board would also have to agree to the proposal, but the three members of the board on the Facilities Committee — Vice President Jean Pretto, Secretary Lisa Dorsey and Kevin Schartner — seemed to favor the idea.
For more than a year Gaines and the current board have held meetings in the Mehlville High School library instead of the cramped, wood-paneled Daniel S. Fowler Board Room, where meetings have been held for decades.
Demolishing Witzel and Central Office will save the district money in maintenance costs long term, Gaines said.
Since the needed work for Witzel runs into the millions, the time to decide the future of the building is now, he added. Among the items needed to shore up Witzel are a new HVAC system, new windows, tuckpointing, an electrical upgrade and a new plumbing system. To fix the plumbing, technicians would have to drill through floors that are filled with asbestos.
He calculates through “very back-of-the-envelope math” that buying a new building and refurbishing it for Mehlville’s needs would cost $1 million more than rehabbing Witzel, but the district would have lower long-term maintenance costs with the newer building. If the district spends millions now on Witzel, it will be back in the same situation of deciding what to do with it in 20 years, he said.
The building is named after the family of former board President Kurt Witzel, whose grandfather Louis Witzel served as board president in the 1930s and secured the land and federal funding to build Witzel, the district’s first high school.
District officials already found a “shell” of a building that they could finish to suit Mehlville’s needs during their hunt for a new site for the six-district alternative school for students with extended suspensions that Mehlville runs, SCOPE — South County Opportunities for the Purpose of Education.
The district shuffled SCOPE to Witzel this year so that the new school of innovation Mosaic Elementary could open in SCOPE’s digs at the former St. John’s Elementary.
As for what the district would do with the central spot on Mehlville’s High’s campus that would open up by demolishing Witzel and Central Office, Gaines suggested three ideas: The land could stay as green space, which would be the least expensive option. It could be converted to parking, which is a continual complaint at MHS. Or the district could build a new aquatic center and pool to replace the current outdated MHS pool, which serves both high schools but has numerous problems.
Faced with the same question around the time of the Proposition P ballot measure in 2000, the board chose to keep Witzel. Funding for the plans could still come from Proposition P, however. If voters approve a no-tax-rate-increase Prop P extension of 47 cents that Gaines hopes to ask for in 2021, the district would have roughly $9 million in extra capital and operations funding a year, which could pay to demolish Witzel.
One of the reasons the district is making the decision now is that if the board agrees to eventually demolish Witzel and its Central Office neighbor, the district will not spend any money maintaining the buildings and will come up with contingency plans in case a major system fails in the interim. Some projects for the buildings were slated for next summer on the district’s five-year facilities plan.
“If we could survive until 2021, which I think is probably doable, then I think we could have money ­— as long as nothing big breaks,” Gaines said.