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U City eases path for move of Torah Prep girls school

Torah Prep School of St. Louis could soon have a new home for its girls division, but some University City residents see that as coming at the expense of the Black community.

At a U City school board meeting July 9, public comments over whether to declare the district’s Ronald E. McNair Administration Building as surplus property became heated, with people on both sides of the issue saying racism or anti-Semitism was influencing people’s positions on the proposal.

The board voted 5-2 to designate the building as surplus, which means Novus Development, the group behind a planned $190 million retail development at Olive Boulevard and I-170 (reportedly anchored by a Costco), could purchase the building for Torah Prep. The school’s girls division is located within the area planned for the development.

The Orthodox Jewish day school has since at least 2012 expressed interest in the McNair property, located at 8136 Groby Rd. McNair houses the district administration offices, an English as a Second Language program and the district’s alternative school. 

The measure to declare the building as surplus required five votes to pass. The school board previously considered the issue in September, when the four white board members voting for it and the three Black board members voted against it. 

This time, Traci Moore, who is Black and was elected to the board in April, joined the white board members in voting for the measure. The district is using a broker to open discussions on the property with Novus, Moore said.

During a public comment period before the vote, some residents opposed to selling the McNair building called Black board members who would vote in favor of it “self-hating” and “Uncle Toms,” an insult used against Black people who are seen as selling out to white people. 

Supporters of the measures described that as unfair criticism and said opponents were engaging in bigotry and anti-Semitism.

“I was appalled, obviously,” Moore said of the insults. “I don’t feel that my vote on a building should define who I am as a black woman.” 

Moore and other residents also said that at previous meetings, opponents of the sale had used ethnic dog whistles such as referring to supporters from Torah Prep as “those people.”

Moore, a real estate agent who has lived in U City for 50 years, told the Light she voted in favor of the measure because the administration had “presented a really thorough report on why we don’t need the building. … I just felt like, financially, the district could use the money.”

The report contained scenarios in which the building could sell for $1.8 million or $2.4 million. Renovating the building would cost $800,000, the report states. Board members said they could find space for the operations housed in the McNair building in other district properties.  

“I truly believe that in the long run, the redevelopment will help property values in the 3rd Ward [of University City], which will help the financial status of the school district,” resident Patricia McQueen said during the meeting. “I am very disturbed and appalled at the tone of some of the discussions about Torah Prep buying and moving into the McNair building. The bigotry and hints of anti-Semitism in public and private discussion should be pointed out, and a statement should be made that such bias statements do not reflect the character of University City.”

A large number of Torah Prep families submitted emails in favor of the McNair sale at the meeting, which lasted for four hours. 

“Based upon the report of our award-winning superintendent and [chief financial officer], it is clear that the McNair building is a financial burden on our shrinking school system and will never be fully utilized in a cost-effective manner. It also seems that the previous hopes for an early childhood program on the site will either not come to fruition or could just easily be utilized on other suitable sites,” the emails stated. 

Rabbi Tzvi Freedman, Torah Prep executive director, declined to comment on the board’s decision.  

Opponents of the proposed sale have said that the district is helping private interests at the expense of public school students, the majority of whom are Black. They have also criticized the move because the building is named for Ronald McNair, who was one of the first Black astronauts to go into space and died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff in 1986. 

Zaki Baruti, a longtime activist in U City who hurled the “Uncle Tom” insult, said at the meeting: “The issue at hand is a racial issue because when we came here in September, the vote was along racial lines, and that’s a fact. … Three Black women stood up against the sale. And here you are again bringing the same issue back. In terms of this building, some things are priceless, and this decision should be tabled until after the pandemic is over so you can have greater input from the people.” 

Ellen Bern, a Jewish Univeristy City resident who served on the school board from 2006 to 2012, is opposed to the sale but said the handful of people who said “ugly things” were not representative of the community. She said she still would like to see the district open an early childhood center and the McNair site maintained as a “place for future growth” 

“I think it’s really a matter of” board members who voted in favor of the measure “being interested in short-term gain, and I was thinking long-term planning for the future,” Bern told the Light.

Before the vote, Don Fitz, a white former Green Party candidate for Missouri auditor, referred to Black board members who could vote in favor of the measure as “self-hating Black people” and said the board was “thumbing its nose at the Black Lives Matter movement.”   

As to whether racial tensions in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests contributed to anger surrounding the proposed sale, Bern, who is white, said:

“Yes. I think it was a combination of things, and I think the tension around race has made people a lot more sensitive in every aspect. And Number 2, the whole COVID thing, and people are stuck at home, and people are more panicked … and if you look at Washington and locally, it’s been ugly, and all those things together brought some people out who looked at things through that lens.”