Kenidra Woods, a junior at Riverview Gardens High School, was among about 200 students who walked out of school for gun violence awareness on February 27, in solidarity with the students in Parkland, Florida.
The next day, Woods and about six of the action’s leaders met with their school’s principal, Darius Kirk and the district’s head of security, Warren Newton, to relay their demands.
“We asked about the outside doors,” Woods said. “When we get off the bus, the side door there is not locked. People can just walk in there. Most of the problems, they said it was a money issue. It’s not just one door. It’s multiple doors that need to be fixed.”
The students asked about several other security upgrades, including tinting the windows, fixing interior locks on doors and more cameras. In that meeting, Kirk and Newton talked to the students about Proposition R, which is a bond issue on the ballot in the Tuesday, April 3 general municipal election. If it passes with 57.14 percent in approval, the Riverview Gardens School District expects that it would generate $11.7 million. This would go towards upgrades for security, technology and a variety of maintenance needs in the district’s facilities, most of which are more than 50 years old.
The predominately African-American school district serves more than 5,700 pre-K-12 students in the surrounding areas of Bellefontaine Neighbors, Castle Point, Dellwood, Glasgow Village, Moline Acres, Riverview and portions of Ferguson, Jennings and unincorporated St. Louis County.
“The principal said that they had a choice between more security and more books in school,” Woods said. “And they had to pick books over school security. If this passes, there was a possibility that we could have all that.”
The day after the walkout, Superintendent Scott Spurgeon said he also spoke with the students about their concerns.
“Some of those things are built into the Prop R funds,” he said.
For instance, the proposition would allow all the schools to get cameras in the entrances, so that the front desk receptionists can see who is at the door before people are buzzed in.
As far as Kirk’s remark about schoolbooks, Spurgeon said that providing the safest environment and best education is a “fine balance.” Both are priorities, he said.
“We oftentimes have to pull from other areas to make sure those areas are met,” he said. “I think we have done a good job over the last four years. But now we really, really need some resources to improve our buildings.”
The heating and cooling system is a main example of that, Spurgeon said. In some of Woods’ classes, she wears a winter coat and other classes she is boiling hot.
“It’s always nothing in between,” she said.
If Prop R passes, all schools will receive upgrades to their heating and air conditioning systems, a $2.34 million cost. The next biggest expense is $1.63 million in technology. The new funds would upgrade the district’s wireless network, which is the technology backbone for all the schools. Classrooms throughout the nation have gone from blackboards to smart boards, and Prop R would allow the district to go in this direction as well.
About $1.4 million would go towards paving surfaces and roof repair.
About $936,000 would go to security needs, such as replacing the doors, better lighting and replacing fire alarm systems. The rest of the funds will go towards things like playground enhancements and renovating the high school band room.
And about $3.3 million will be used to pay off 2009 leasehold bonds, which is much like paying off a second mortgage on a home, district leaders said.
Spurgeon emphasizes that the bond issue is not a tax levy, which increases property taxes. The sale of bonds by the district is a long-term obligation that is paid by a debt service tax levy for about 20 years, much like a home mortgage, he said.
The district is currently at a critical turning point.
In December 2016, the district earned its provisional accreditation status, ending a decade of being unaccredited as well as the district’s obligation to pay for students tuition and transportation at other accredited schools.
The district is now in its fourth consecutive year of making academic gains, Spurgeon said.
Unaccredited from 2007 to 2017, the district is still governed by a state-appointed Special Administrative Board. Spurgeon and Kirk both came in 2013, and prior to their arrival, the district had earned only 40 out of 140 points on the state’s annual performance report (APR). A district needs at least 70 points to be considered for provisional accreditation and 98 for full accreditation.
Also in 2013, nearly 1,400 students signed up to attend other districts through the state’s transfer law. As part of that, Riverview had to pay for those students’ tuitions – and some transportation costs – to attend other accredited schools, costing more than $20 million over several years.
Despite the exodus of students and revenue, the district still jumped 23 points on the APR following the 2013-2014 school year. “Just 6.5 points shy of the 70 points we needed to be considered provisionally accredited,” Spurgeon said.
The 2014-2015 school year started off with Michael Brown Jr. being shot and killed in the Canfield Green Apartments, which is within the district’s geographic footprint. Despite the unrest and emotional uproar in the community, the district had earned 111 out of 140 points – enough to be considered fully accredited.
“The students, parents and teachers of Riverview Gardens are worth investing in, and that’s why I support Prop R on the April ballot,” said state Sen. Gina Walsh, who represents the district. “Good schools build great communities, and Prop R will help Riverview Gardens provide a quality education for every student without raising taxes. Often times our future is defined by the decisions we make today, and I know that Prop R is the right decision for our schools and this community.”