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Plans for new early childhood center approved by Mehlville school board

Mehlville School District officials can wash their hands of obtaining approval for the commencement of early childhood center construction plans.

But where the facility's future occupants will be able to wash their hands was just one of the concerns posed during public presentations last week of designs for the center. Mehlville Proposition P Oversight Committee and Board of Education members last week considered plans for the new early childhood center drafted by Dickinson Hussman Architects.

While only seven Oversight Committee members were present during a June 28 meeting, the group unanimously recommended board approval without reservations, while board members also unanimously gave their seal of approval June 29 and authorized administrators to begin the bidding process.

"This looks like the most organized and efficient design I have ever seen," board member Vice President Matt Chellis remarked June 29.

The 18,647-square-foot building, which will be constructed adjacent to the Beasley Elementary School Campus on Koch Road, is designed to contain eight 743-square-foot classrooms. Each classroom will include a restroom with two toilets, which will be shared by the adjacent classrooms. No sinks or partitioned dividers will be present in the joint toilet space, but each classroom will include at least one sink and curtains have been suggested for privacy.

Site features also include:

• A 1,390-square-foot multipurpose room.

• A 90-space parking lot.

• A pitched roof, which is much like an angled residential roof and will not be flat.

• A 4,000-square-foot playground with a six-foot-high surrounding fence.

• A back entrance that will lead to the playground and can be accessed through a service road that is scheduled to be constructed for the building.

At present, Dickinson Hussman officials indicated, after some recent revisions, the project should come in at $2.34 million — under the building's $2,610,386 construction budget adopted last September. However, they warned skyrocketing steel prices could contribute an additional $150,000 to the project. Construction is projected to total 10 months and is planned to be completed and ready for use at the beginning of the 2005-2006 school year.

While board member Bill Schornheuser voted to approve the construction plan, he told Don Hussman of Dickinson Hussman, that children not being able to wash their hands in the classroom toilet spaces was his No. 1 concern.

"For me, it's a concern not having a hand-washing area within a toilet area," he said of the shared toilets in the classrooms June 29. "I know at that age, things can get messy. I certainly would — I don't know. It just seems odd to me ..."

Adding sinks would add significant cost to the entire project, Hussman answered.

"As we designed this space, we looked at many, many different arrangements. It would be desirable on the staff's part to have two sinks in the classroom. And we are looking at that as an alternate ...,'' the architect said, noting his firm considered what impact that would have on the cost of the project.

"Again, primarily it is first a function of cost, second a function of space,'' Hussman added.

Building codes mandate a certain amount of space be available in the restrooms to enable the maneuvering of a wheelchair in front of the sinks and the rooms get to be very large — a primary reason to eliminate them, Hussman said.

Another concern Schornheuser noted during the June 29 board meeting, which was shared by members of the Oversight Committee June 28, was that the plans showed a service roadway would lead to the building's back entrance. What concerned him, he said, was that the service roadway was directly adjacent to the playground.

From the standpoint of security, Hussman responded, he said he would prefer that the building have only one set of doors, but noted that codes require the back entrance.

Hussman noted a few options in which some storage could be eliminated to create a different entrance closer to Koch Road, but he did not recommend it for security reasons and believed that the loss of that storage would be significant.

During the June 28 Oversight meeting, committee member Sandy Applegate asked if 90 spaces was too small for the building's needs. For events, any overflow parking could be serviced at the adjacent Beasley Elementary campus, Hussman suggested.

Ross Bullington, committee member, asked if there was any room on the site for center expansion.

"I suggest that we wouldn't do it," Superintendent Tim Ricker said.

If expansion is necessary, Ricker said he believes the district should look for another site at another location that would be small and conducive to the needs of an early childhood center.

"But should, in 20 years, someone decide Dr. Ricker was wrong ... the building is set up for expansion," Hussman said. "... This building is expandable to the west. And that would just mean a moving or relocating of the playground."

The current early childhood center, the Witzel Learning Center on Lemay Ferry Road, has 11 classrooms with 12 pupils in each room. As designed, the new center will have eight rooms that could handle 21 pupils each and still meet accreditation standards, Hussman explained. In that scenario, each child would have 35 square feet of space in the 743-square-foot rooms.

Committee Chairman Chuck Van Gronigen said that it "sounded" as if 743 square feet per classroom is less than what is preferred by early childhood staff.

"Well, sure. Little kids need a lot of room," said Kathie Fuchs, director of early childhood education. "... You know, they don't sit at desks. They move around. So, yeah, I mean it is definitely bigger than what we're in now. It would be nice if they were bigger, but ..."

"Is it big enough? That's what I'm after," Van Gronigen said. "Are these classrooms going to give you enough space to deliver your program the way you want ...?"

Each classroom could serve 18 students, Fuchs replied.

"I'm not sure that we're going to want to have 21," she said. "... It's more than what we're serving now."

Committee member Karen Johnson said 35 feet is the "bare minimum" and children that young should have 42 feet, according to industry standards.

If 42 square feet per pupil is the industry standard, Johnson asked, "Why are we touting it as it's great to have 21 kids in a classroom ... and then getting the thought process going on another building? Did I make any sense?"

Ricker said, "No, you didn't."

She posed concerns that there wouldn't be enough workable and usable space, asking that the district be careful in presenting that 21 pupils would be in a classroom since she knew of community members who "already wonder" why the district is building a new early childhood center.

Board member Rita Diekemper, who also serves on the committee, noted that the 21 pupils per classroom only serves as a minimum standard for accreditation.

Ricker agreed that 21 pupils would not be an ideal number of pupils for each classroom in an early childhood center. Johnson and Van Gronigen again cautioned that the district be careful in its presentation of classroom capacity to the community.

Van Gronigen mentioned a separate concern regarding the building's pitched roof. Conceding that pitched roofs — such as the one built over the new Oakville Elementary — are nice-looking and fit in well in residential areas, Van Gronigen questioned why designers had not opted for a less expensive flat-roof design for the early childhood center.

"Well, wherever we can we like to use those roofs. We don't like to have flat roofs. It's not that we don't do it," Dwight Dickinson of Dickinson Hussman said.

Longevity of the building increases and the amount of needed maintenance decreases with pitched roofs. The rooftop air-conditioning units easily are masked by pitched roofs, Hussman added. "In our opinion, it was the best solution all things considered," he said.

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