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St. Louis Public Schools faces urgent need for renovations or closures

A car passes a brick school building.
Theo R. Welling
St. Louis Public Radio
Adams Elementary School was built over 100 years ago and is one building contributing to almost $28 million in immediate costs — including plumbing, HVAC, fire protection and other structural concerns — related to St. Louis Public Schools.

Nearly half of St. Louis’ public schools need to be repaired or closed in the next 10 years due to their poor condition, a regional architecture firm has found.

If the district decides to keep the schools open, upkeep will cost an estimated $1.8 billion by 2044, according to the Illinois-based firm Cordogan, Clark and Associates, which presented its findings at last Tuesday's school board meeting.

Steve Raskin, a vice president of the firm, said it’s too early to make a recommendation as to the school district's course of action, whether that’s to close down schools or make major renovations.

“At this point, I think it’s entirely premature to even have that conversation because really, we’re not there yet,” Raskin said.

He said that after presenting the assessments last week, the firm now must work with the school board on next steps, including gathering more data and conducting scenario testing. He said both entities need to ask themselves questions before making big decisions.

“What is the district going to be doing moving forward?” Raskin said. “What does teaching look like today and the next 20 years relative to the last 100 years? Are the classrooms large enough? Do they provide enough technology?”

The firm estimates the district has almost $28 million in immediate costs, including plumbing, HVAC, fire protection and other structural concerns.

School board President Toni Cousins said she suspects some schools will have to close after the architecture firm’s plans are consulted. She said she wants people to understand the difficulty of the current situations of the city and school district.

“We're not taking this lightly, and we know within the next two to three years to come that we're going to have to make some really hard and tough decisions for the betterment of the city,” Cousins said.

She said the board now intends to work with the firm on a timeline and plan of action. The board learned at Tuesday’s meeting that the district expects a $133 million operating deficit next year due to the end of pandemic relief funds, adding to the financial strain.

“There are so many layers to what we know needs to be done,” she said. “It’s not going to be something that’s going to happen overnight.”

The firm assessed 68 schools and 72 facilities, totaling around 6.5 million square feet of space.

The firm evaluated its results using what it referred to as a Facility Condition Index. It was defined as a “theoretical objective indication of a building’s overall condition.” The score is calculated by dividing the cost of current needs by the current replacement value of the facility.

When a building’s FCI score hits 30% or above, the firm advises consideration to decide if it’s worth it to continue investing in the facility. As the FCI score increases, the facility’s condition is further deteriorating.

According to the firm, 21 ECC and elementary schools, 13 middle schools and 13 high schools in the district will have an FCI score at 30% or higher in the next 10 years.

Raskin said St. Louis Public Schools is unique in the sense that the buildings are older than those in many other school districts, challenging the district with long-term maintenance. Some schools were built more than 100 years ago, like Adams Elementary, which was built in 1878.

“It’s a challenge in terms of the numbers of buildings and also in terms of the number of students, and also trying to keep those current and keep those facilities up to date, from technology and safety and other perspectives,” he said.

Enrollment at St. Louis Public Schools has been declining for decades. The district’s peak enrollment was more than 115,000 in 1967; this year, it’s at 16,542. Many schools are at half capacity or less.

Because of this, Raskin said it’s important for school districts to make long-term plans for their buildings.

“We’re making sure that everything we can do as architects and designers provides a safe and secure environment, both for the students, but also their families, their parents, for the teachers and for the communities themselves,” he said.

Cousins said she wants the community to be involved in upcoming decisions. She said Superintendent Keisha Scarlett plans to provide a presentation at the next school board meeting that will give an overview of next steps and what’s needed from the board and community members.

“We're just trying to ensure that we're making the sound decisions to make a right-size district for the population that the city is dealing with at this time,” Cousins said.

Madison Holcomb is a Summer '24 newsroom intern at St. Louis Public Radio and a rising senior at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.