District seeking more money from state for new high school

Posted: Sunday, January 09, 2000

The Juneau School District is appealing the amount of state funding the proposed new high school is eligible for, as well as its ranking on a priority list.

Under some funding scenarios, the difference of opinion could be worth millions of dollars to local taxpayers.

But whether the state uses the priority list for school-construction grants depends on how lawmakers craft a funding bill, state education officials said.

``One never knows what the Legislature will do,'' said schools Superintendent Gary Bader. ``And we have a need in Juneau that the voters have endorsed and committed money to. By its placement on this list, we want it to be visible to people making decisions on general obligation bonds or whatever.''

The school district's dispute with the state Department of Education stems from differing calculations of current high school space and projected future enrollments.

``Student population drives space,'' said Nathan Coffee, an architect assistant in the Department of Education. ``And the space issue drives how many dollars we're willing to say they're eligible for.''

Of the anticipated $49.91 million, 1,200-student school planned for the Mendenhall Valley, the Department of Education says $31.47 million (about two-thirds) is eligible for some state funding. The school district thinks all of it should be eligible.

Juneau voters approved bonds last October that would pay for part of the cost of building a new high school and renovating Juneau-Douglas High School, pending some state help.

Local school officials are concerned Juneau's project ranks No. 53 on the priority list. And it includes funds only for some of the new high school's design costs, not construction.

How low is No. 53? The first 52 projects would use up about $200 million in state funding, mostly for rural projects.

One proposal this session, by state Rep. Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican who co-chairs the House Finance Committee, would sell general obligation bonds. The proceeds for school construction would be allocated according to a priority list submitted by the Department of Education in January 2001.

Mulder's proposal would appropriate no more than $82 million a year for school construction for several years.

At least a third of that would go to school districts willing to pay 30 percent or more of the project's cost. The state would pay up to 70 percent of eligible costs.

With interest, the new high school is expected to cost about $75 million. The difference between receiving state funding for 70 percent of the total vs. 70 percent of two-thirds (as in this year's priority list) is $20 million more in local expense.

State Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, said he wasn't alarmed at Juneau's position on the priority list.

A general obligation bond likely would list specific projects to be funded, including some from cities, to garner as many votes as possible, he said. A bond that goes strictly by the priority list, which ranks many rural projects high, would have difficulty passing lawmakers or the public.

In its appeal, the school district will argue the state should delete the JDHS auditorium from current high school space because the city has agreed to transfer it to the city's inventory of property.

With the auditorium deducted from JDHS, current space would accommodate about 1,200 students, rather than the state's estimate of 1,360 students.

The problem is the auditorium agreement came too late for this year's list and couldn't be considered, said Eddy Jeans, the state's manager of school finance.

Future enrollments are the other main sticking point. The school district sees a need for space for 1,200 more students, but right now the state would cover some of the costs for only about 800 students.

The school district projected an annual growth of 3.5 percent a year in high school enrollments, less than the actual annual growth of 4.5 percent from 1990 to 1998.

At 3.5 percent, Juneau would have about 2,400 high school students in 2008, filling both schools to capacity the fourth year after the new school might open.

Juneau's enrollments actually have been flat since 1998 and are expected to remain so for the next two years at least. High school enrollments have hovered at about 1,780 students for two years.

But Bader said he's looking beyond the short term.

``It's kind of like driving a car. If you only look 10 feet out from the front bumper, you're always going to be correcting yourself,'' he said.

The Department of Education said Juneau's enrollments from kindergarten to grade 12 have gone up an average of only 1.2 percent a year from 1991 to 1999.

But state officials accepted high school growth of 2.9 percent a year as a compromise, Coffee said. They projected it only to 2006, and it came to just under 2,200 students.

The school district's appeal seeks eligibility for state funding for the project's full amount and a higher priority.

Juneau's project is now included on the priority list only for $2.1 million in partial design costs, out of which the state's share would be no more than $1.5 million. The school district wants $4.4 million included on the list, to cover all of the design costs, with the state paying part of that.

A hearing officer hired by the state Department of Education will decide whether there are questions of fact or law that require a hearing. If there is a hearing, the officer's recommendations will go to the appointed state Board of Education for a decision. A time line hasn't been set yet.



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