In a vote Thursday night, the University City Board of Education put a halt to the proposed sale of a district building that would become the new home of an Orthodox Jewish day school located in the middle of Novus Development’s proposed $190 million Costco-anchored redevelopment project in University City.
Novus sought to purchase the University City School District’s Ronald E. McNair Administration Building, located at 8136 Groby Road, so that it could relocate Torah Prep School’s girls’ division, which is located within the proposed redevelopment area in University City. The Novus project is partly funded through a $70.5 million TIF (tax increment financing).
In order to sell the McNair building, the school board first had to declare it as surplus property, which would then be eligible for sale. Four of seven school board members voted in favor of the surplus proposal, but the plan failed since regulations required a two-thirds majority of the board for passage.
In a 2018 story, news site Patch.com quoted a Novus official saying the McNair sale was an important part of moving ahead with the TIF-funded development plan. The story noted that Novus director of leasing Michael Koch said the company needed to find “an alternative site” that would work for Torah Prep in order to purchase the school’s current property.
Torah Prep serves students from early childhood to eighth grade. It has separate campuses for boys and girls.
U. City School Board member LaVerne Ford-Williams opposed the plan to declare the McNair Building as surplus property.
“In my opinion, for us, the board, to vote to surplus and sell property that we are definitely using is a gross misuse of our charge to be fiscally responsible to the entire community,” she said.
Torah Prep has shown previous interest in the McNair building. In 2012, the school made a $1.1 million offer, which died after a 5-2 vote against labeling McNair as surplus property.
Thursday’s meeting, which took place at McNair, featured lengthy public comment from supporters and opponents before a brief board debate. Proponents of the measure noted the benefits of a cash infusion by selling what they believe to be an underutilized facility in need of maintenance.
Opponents contended that the building, which houses both administrative and some educational functions, was getting adequate use. Some questioned whether board members felt pressured by University City leadership’s support of the TIF and suggested the proposal should be put to a public vote. Others said that enrollment might rebound and the district could regret having sold off so much space.
Most of the debate, which became passionate but remained respectful, did not reference Torah Prep and centered instead on budgetary and programmatic needs within the district. However, opponents did mention the Jewish day school in passing a few times.
“Why is it that the Jewish community understands the value of the McNair property both now and in the future but it seems that our school board members may not?” asked one.
Board member George Lenard was among the supporters of the proposal.
“It is the equivalent in my mind of putting out a ‘For Sale’ sign and doing a listing with a realtor, not sure that you are going to sell but wanting to test the market,” said Lenard. “My vote in no way reflects a decision on my part as to whether I want to sell this building or not. It only reflects an interest in finding out more about what the possibilities are.”
Board president Kristine Hendrix opposed the plan, noting that any dollars brought in would only forestall the district’s financial woes, not act as a permanent solution.
“What are the other intrinsic values that this property may hold that goes past just pure economics?” she asked, echoing earlier comments about the facility’s history and importance to the community.
In 2016, Torah Prep completed a $2.5 million renovation of its girls division building, including a new roof, heating and air conditioning, windows, lighting, landscaping and a redesigned entrance, among other changes.
No designated representatives of Torah Prep spoke during the public debate on Thursday. The Light reached out to the school and Novus for comment, but did not receive comments by press time.