Torah Prep purchases building from University City School District

University City School District’s Ronald E. McNair Administration Center on Groby Road. Photo: Eric Berger

By Eric Berger, Associate Editor

Torah Prep School of St. Louis has reached an agreement to purchase an administrative building from University City School District, a move connected to the planned $190 million retail development along Olive Boulevard in University City.

The Orthodox Jewish day school wanted to buy the Ronald E. McNair Administration Building for more than a decade, as its student body continued to grow, according to school leaders.

But they had difficulty acquiring the building from the U. City school district because some residents saw the move as coming at the expense of the Black community. 

Novus Development, the group behind the retail complex, which is set to feature a Costco Wholesale store, joined the Torah Prep cause because it needed the land that Torah Prep currently occupies. 

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Philanthropist and developer Michael Staenberg also played a key role in helping the school acquire the new building, according to Torah Prep leaders. 

Torah Prep purchased the building from U. City school district for $3.75 million on April 6, according to the district. 

Novus Development also bought Torah Prep’s building at 8659 Olive Blvd.; the school declined to share how much Novus paid. 

“We have been working for more than 12 years to get this building, and there is a lot of excitement for our school,” said Rabbi Tzvi Freedman, Torah Prep executive director. 

The 44,000-square-foot McNair building sits on a 6-acre campus at 8136 Groby Road and will be used for girls from kindergarten through eighth grade. Torah Prep plans to move into the new building for the 2021-2022 school year. 

The school also plans on the new campus to build a facility for its boys division and a facility for Esther Miller Bais Yaakov girls’ high school, according to the school. 

“If the school grows, we will have room for expansion,” said Dr. Dov Zeffren, board president for Torah Prep, which is expected to have 300 students next school year. 

Torah Prep does plan to renovate the McNair building, which has been used for the U. City district administration offices, an English as a Second Language program and the district’s alternative school.

In July, when the school board was considering declaring the building surplus property, opponents suggested that the proposed sale would help private interests at the expense of the district’s students, the majority of whom are Black. The building was also named for Ronald McNair, one of the first Black astronauts to go into space, who died when the space shuttle Challenger exploded after liftoff in 1986.

Conversely, some alleged that opponents were engaging in bigotry and anti-Semitism because of their comments at meetings.

Staenberg, who donated more than $1 million in time and money to a previous Torah Prep renovation, said that “under the radar” he was able to “convince the school board to sell it to Torah Prep through my quiet back channels.” He declined to provide specifics as to how he was able to persuade the board.

“Michael has always been a great friend of the school, and he lent his expertise to help us in our dealings and negotiations with the U. City school board in helping to finalize this deal. We are very much appreciative of that,” said Zeffren. 

Ellen Bern, a Jewish University City resident who served on the school board from 2006 to 2012, opposed the sale and hoped that the district would use the building for an early childhood center. But now that it’s done, she said, “it’s a non-issue.”

“I wish the best for the Jewish community and for the new school. Good luck to them,” said Bern. “They got a nice piece of property, and I also hope that our school district will continue to find a better solution to provide universal pre-K to every child in U. City.”