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St. Louis Public Schools asks voters for more money as schools crumble nationwide

SLPS Superintendent Dr. Kelvin Adams climbs a flight of stairs
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Kelvin Adams, St. Louis Public Schools superintendent, climbs a flight of steps on July 11 at Herzog Elementary in north St. Louis.

In St. Louis and across the country, school buildings are in bad need of updates. The American Society of Civil Engineers does a regular report card of the country’s infrastructure, and in the most recent one, schools got a D+.

“A large portion of the system exhibits some pretty significant deterioration,” said Marsia Geldert-Murphey, president-elect of the American Society of Civil Engineers.

Funding for school infrastructure has been a national problem for decades, she said.

“In the 1950s and ’60s, people were very willing to participate in building this amazing infrastructure that we have,” Geldert-Murphey said. “But it is now aged out, and we haven't been keeping up with the maintenance and the operations, and so we’re suffering for it.”

Those types of maintenance issues are especially prevalent in St. Louis Public Schools, where the district estimates the average age of buildings is 87 and many were built at the turn of the 20th century. As federal funding for school infrastructure has stalled, districts like SLPS are asking voters to pass local bond measures to address decades of wear and tear.

Herzog Elementary School on Monday, July 11, 2022, in Jennings.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Herzog Elementary School on July 11 in north St. Louis. The school was designed in 1934 by architect Ernest T. Friton and built as a Public Works Administration project.

A typical school

If you walk around the back of Herzog Elementary in the North Pointe neighborhood, you will find a huge, blue, humming box sitting on wheels behind a fence. It’s a chiller that the school uses for air conditioning, and it’s on wheels because it’s temporary.

The permanent chiller gave out at the end of the school year when the weather was unusually hot, said St. Louis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent of Operations Square Watson.

“We had to bring in a temporary unit just because the amount of repairs needed to bring the existing chiller back up and running was too costly,” Watson said.

In many ways, Herzog Elementary is a typical SLPS school. The grand brick building was constructed in the mid-1930s as a Public Works Administration project. In the hallways, some of the water fountains are kid-size porcelain time capsules.

“We have a lot of buildings that were built around this time, and this is what those drinking fountains looked like,” Watson said of the low-to-the-ground, shallow fountains that are not chilled.

On the second floor of the building, Watson pointed out multiple problems with a restroom: It's small and not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and most of the fixtures are in need of repair. Beyond the first floor, in fact, many SLPS schools still don’t meet ADA requirements.

These are some of the issues on a long list that St. Louis Public Schools wants to address with a $160 million bond issue on the Aug. 2 ballot. The district calls Proposition S a “no-tax increase bond” because it extends the current tax rate.

In initial plans for the funding, restroom renovations account for a third of potential spending. Large portions are also set aside for HVAC upgrades and the exteriors of buildings, like roof and brick maintenance.

Square Watson, Deputy Superintendent of Operations at St. Louis Public Schools, tries to close a sticky bathroom window on Monday, July 11, 2022, at Herzog Elementary School in Jennings.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Square Watson, deputy superintendent of operations at St. Louis Public Schools, tries to close a sticky bathroom window on July 11 at Herzog Elementary School in north city.

More than three-fourths of St. Louis voters approved a bond in 2010 for about the same amount of money, but this time around, the dollars almost certainly won’t go as far because of inflation and supply chain delays.

Superintendent Kelvin Adams said the bond would only cover about half the amount needed to fix everything.

“We're only going to touch the surface of this,” he said. “We know for a fact that there are more needs than the dollars will support, but this gets us moving in the right direction.”

And it’s about the only direction they can go. Missouri doesn’t offer state funding for school maintenance, although there are limited general funds schools can tap into. There’s also not much coming from the federal government — President Joe Biden tried to include schools in the massive infrastructure package late last year, but the final compromise left them out.

That means schools rely on local property taxes for the vast majority of infrastructure needs. That can be good, said SLPS School Board President Matt Davis, because it means voters control school spending.

“But as we know, not every tax base is created equal,” Davis said. “So you end up with a great deal of inequity in terms of how building projects are funded by school districts.”

Dr. Kelvin Adams, St. Louis Public Schools superintendent, stands stands in Herzog Elementary School’s cafeteria on Monday, July 11, 2022, in Jennings.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Kelvin Adams, St. Louis Public Schools superintendent, stands in Herzog Elementary School’s cafeteria.

In communities where home values are higher, schools can have significantly bigger budgets.

Even with fewer resources, Watson said his team works to balance necessities with the things that matter to students. A fresh coat of paint or new drinking fountains can impress the young scholars and help them feel welcome.

“When they come in, they get that, ‘Wow,'" Watson said, "just some of the small things that take us a long way.”

If St. Louis voters approve the bond, the district says it will be able to go even further.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.