Revised proposal calls for building new Buerkle Middle School

Teachers, parents were right about Buerkle, Fowler says.


A new Margaret Buerkle Middle School would be built next to Mehlville Senior High School under a proposal presented last week by the Mehlville School District’s architects.

Representatives from Dickinson-Hussman Architects and district officials said at a town-hall meeting Saturday that they formulated the idea after determining initial plans to renovate the existing middle school at 623 Buckley Road weren’t feasible.

Dickinson-Hussman made that determination after several weeks of developing master plans for Buerkle and four other district schools in need of improvements. The Board of Education in May authorized a $75,000 agreement with the architectural firm for the master planning.

The new Buerkle would be constructed north of the high school at the site of the district’s bus and maintenance facilities.

“This is just a very difficult site to work with from a middle-school standpoint,” architect Dwight Dickinson said of the existing Buerkle campus. “We’re absolutely convinced this is a superior solution.”

The proposal seemed to impress the two dozen people who attended the town-hall meeting in the Buerkle gymnasium. Only one person raised a hand when the group was asked if anyone thought the district should “go back to the drawing board.”

A facilities study in 2007 showed Buerkle was the most deficient school in the district in such areas as educational adequacy and educational environment. Notably, 630 students — 670 as of May 2010 — were crammed into a facility built to house 532.

Buerkle received 520 points on a 1,000-point grading scale — 52 percent — with an overall rating of “borderline.”

The school was built in 1973 and was designed “a lot differently that most schools are built today,” Dickinson said, noting, for example, that there weren’t a lot of windows installed to save on energy costs.

Studies since have shown that daylight in the classroom can improve academic performance, he said.

Improvements to Buerkle, Washington and Oakville middle schools and Bierbaum and Trautwein elementary schools highlight COMPASS II — Charting the Oakville-Mehlville Path to Advance Successful Schools — a community-engagement effort and long-range plan to make Mehlville a high-performing school district. The proposed improvements to the middle schools are designed to give them parity with the district’s fourth middle school, Bernard, which was built in 2003.

But while a number of Buerkle teachers and parents suggested at recent community-engagement sessions that the district simply should tear down the school and build a new one, officials initially believed it would be more cost-effective to perform a “gut rehab” — renovating the interior without completely demolishing the structure.

Renovating Buerkle would cost the district roughly $11 million while constructing a new school would carry about a $22 million price tag, officials have estimated.

“Architects don’t give up easily, and although we ran into a number of problems with the development of a floor plan and such, we said there’s gotta be a way,” architect Donald Hussman said.

But after examining the site and drawing up a master plan, Dickinson-Hussman determined there just wasn’t enough space for a high-performing middle school and that too much of the existing structure would have to be torn down and rebuilt anyway.

“Throughout the COMPASS process, you kept telling us to tear it down, and we kept telling you we could rehab it,” COMPASS II Facilitating Team Co-Chair Dan Fowler said Saturday. “Now, it turns out that you were correct.”

Buerkle is a roughly 87,000-square-foot facility situated on 12 acres. Those figures may have been adequate in 1973, but St. Louis County zoning ordinances now state new middle schools should be at least 135,000 square feet and be built on 20-acre sites, Hussman said.

“So all of a sudden, you can see we’re almost half the size of what is required by St. Louis County ordinance,” he said.

Hussman showed the audience a diagram of one possible Buerkle renovation on the existing site. The combination of a larger building, increased parking and driveways left the campus “short on acres” for athletic facilities and green space, Hussman said. County ordinances state the latter must account for about 35 percent of the total site of a school, he said.

Under the alternative proposal, Buerkle would move to the 40-plus acre Mehlville High campus and would be a 135,000-square-foot facility. That option, Dickinson and others said Saturday, is appealing for several reasons:

• Buerkle pupils and staff would be able to stay at the current campus during the 18-month period estimated to construct the new middle school.

• The middle school’s new location would not affect current attendance boundaries.

• Relocating the district’s bus lot from the high school campus would alleviate traffic and safety issues before and after school. A traffic study would be conducted before starting the project, officials said.

• Both schools would share the athletic fields for sports and physical education, which initially may present scheduling challenges but would eliminate the need to construct new facilities.

Meanwhile, the old Buerkle site wouldn’t be abandoned, Hussman said.

One idea would be to house the district’s Central Office in the old facility, officials said. The diagram of the proposed shared Buerkle-Mehlville High campus includes a new performing arts center — also part of the COMPASS II plan — in place of the existing Central Office and Witzel Alt Academy, both of which would be demolished and relocated.

The COMPASS II plan includes $107 million worth of proposals. The district would have to place a 94-cent tax-rate increase on the ballot to fund the whole plan. For capital projects, such as the $20 million new Buerkle, a two-cent increase would be needed for every $5 million, officials have projected.

The added cost to construct a new middle school could be offset by shaving dollars from proposed HVAC improvements to Bierbaum and Trautwein, the cost of which may have been overestimated, Fowler said.

He noted Saturday that the unfeasibility of the original Buerkle renovations would not have been discovered if the school board hadn’t approved the master planning pact with Dickinson-Hussman.

The board voted 4-3 on the contract at its May 27 meeting. Vice President Venki Palamand and board members Micheal Ocello and Erin Weber were opposed.

Ocello and Palamand said they weren’t opposed to having master plans for the five schools, but felt the board was “putting the cart before the horse” by spending money related to building improvements without knowing whether the community would support funding them at the polls.