School board authorizes administrators to refine plans for former St. John’s site

Diekemper concerned because proposal not in long-range plan

By MIKE ANTHONY

Mehlville Board of Education members last week directed administrators to continue to refine a proposal to relocate an alternative-education program for suspended students to the former St. John’s Elementary School at Will Avenue and Lemay Ferry Road.

During a special meeting Friday afternoon, Board of Education members, administrators and other district employees toured the former elementary school, originally constructed in 1922. After the tour, board members voted unanimously to authorize the administration to develop plans for the use of the St. John’s facility, including moving the Project SCOPE — South County Opportunities for the Purpose of Education — program there. Those plans, which will include detailed costs and a proposal to fund the project, are scheduled to be presented to the Board of Education when it meets at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 17, in the Oakville Senior High School Library, 5557 Milburn Road.

Interim Superintendent Jerry Chambers, Deputy Superintendent Eric Knost and Project SCOPE Executive Director Allan Schindler last month discussed with the board a proposal to move the SCOPE program to the St. John’s facility.

Established in 1997, Project SCOPE offers education to students in seven 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.

Chambers told the board last month 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. Though he was reluctant at the Dec. 14 meeting to disclose an estimate for renovating the St. John’s facility, Chambers said that “a wonderful job” of updating the building likely would be near $1.8 million.

Administrators also have been discussing the possibility of having an alternative-school program at a renovated St. John’s facility, something Knost advocated Friday.

But board member Rita Diekemper expressed concerns Friday that renovating the St. John’s building was not included in the district’s long-range plan, or LRP.

“… I guess I have concerns about the fact that it’s not currently incorporated into our long-range plan or a full-scale facilities plan, and so I would like to — and really there hasn’t been time for community input — so I’m having concerns about jumping into it for next year if the decision has to be made by the end of January, just because I’m concerned about if it requires an outlay of funds, then it’s not part of our plan, I don’t see how logically that can fit together,” she said.

Chambers said, “It will be a call for the board — a point well taken, Rita. A point is also maybe well taken is do we have paralysis until we revise the LRP? Do we continue to pay rent when it’s not fiscally sound or do we wait until every — an LRP should be a growing document that’s always in process …”

Diekemper interjected, “I agree with that. Yeah, but …”

Chambers said, “… And not necessarily an end in itself, so …”

Diekemper said, “And I wouldn’t call it paralysis. I would call it good decision-making …”

Chambers said, “… The 17th will be whether it’s a good decision, and if four of you say it’s a good decision, then four of you think it is.”

After further discussion, board member Tom Diehl made a motion to authorize the administration to develop plans for the St. John’s facility. Vice President Karl Frank Jr. seconded the motion.

Board member Cindy Christopher said, “… We have had no conversation about this property in closed session and some of the things that we have reviewed in times past and I think that — I understand your urgency. However, I think this is a little bit putting the cart before the horse because I had some other ideas in my head that we’ve talked about in the past that I think are very doable ideas …”

Chambers interjected, “Well, I told you many times I like to err on the side of openness and sometimes some things need — we talk about openness and community involvement, sometimes it’s proper. This school district’s owned by these voters.”

Christopher said, “I agree.”

Chambers continued, “OK. And I like to err on the side of openness. I have for 36 years, and there’s nothing wrong with having this discussion. And if you guys don’t like what we have to say Jan. 17th, four of you, at least four of you will vote no. That’s all we’re asking. But I don’t want to ask these people to spend a bunch of time …”

Christopher interjected, “… That’s where I am, too. I guess I’m concerned that we haven’t had any discussion about other ideas and other options, and we’re going down the road pretty far with this one to bring it back to us when …”

Chambers interjected, “… That’s what an administration is supposed to do. An administration is supposed to guide a school district and take those things to elected members of the board. That’s what — we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing. Then you can either (accept or) reject our ideas. It’s not supposed to be a wholesale debate among the Board of Education. It’s supposed to be a proposal from the educators and the board members can vote it up (or) down.”

Diekemper said, “… I think my job is to come up with questions from people that I’ve heard in the community that they would have if they were making the same decision about this property that I was having. So that’s — I’m just — all I’m asking is questions to make a decision. I have absolutely no opinion in my mind whatsoever about what to do about this project because I haven’t seen any numbers yet …”

Chambers interjected, “… That’s what we want authorization to bring.”

Diekemper said, “OK, that part is fine, but the accusation that somehow, you know, the questions are bad or that we’re trying to make a statement by asking questions, I think you’re maybe reading more into that than there is.”

Chambers replied, “We’re asking for a vote, Rita.”

Over the weekend, Chambers discussed with the Call his thoughts about renovating the St. John’s building.

“My vision for the St. John School is to utilize the school building and the property. The SCOPE program could be relocated to this facility at some financial savings to the district over the long haul,” he said. “An alternative-education program, as envisioned by Dr. Knost and others, could also be located on a separate floor of the school. The property is expansive; much of our bus fleet could be relocated here, freeing up space and possibilities for the Mehlville High School campus. As the years go by, curriculum or program changes might alter the use of this school. That would be acceptable and wise.”

In a separate interview, Diehl told the Call, “I’m real impressed with the concept that Dr. Chambers and Dr. Knost presented for the district to be able to use the historic St. John’s School. We have to be good stewards of the limited resources that we have. From an operational standpoint, it looks like this may save us some money and would certainly not cost us any more than we are spending to rent space at Grasso Plaza. I just hope that we can find a way to finance the repairs and renovations, which are really more cosmetic than anything else because the building has been well-maintained otherwise.

“As a district, it’s important for us to provide the resources so that all of our students can succeed academically. The SCOPE program has a long track record of success and the proposal for an alternative school that Dr. Knost presented is something is that the Mehlville district needs to offer our students who struggle in a traditional classroom setting,” he said.

Noting that the district has tried to sell the St. John’s site without success, Diehl said, “I share Dr. Chambers’ concerns about selling a piece of property that we own adjacent to one of our campuses when very little property is available in south county if we were to ever need it for other facilities. Financially, we could not make enough off the sale of that property to have a very significant impact on our $100 million budget. Dr. Chambers needs to be congratulated for coming up with this visionary plan and working so hard to try and move us forward.”