The Juneau Assembly's Public Works and Facilities Committee on Wednesday voted to pass on to the full Assembly the school district's plan for a new high school in the Mendenhall Valley, but recommend that it be scaled back to a cost already approved by voters.
The Assembly at its meeting Jan. 27 is expected to consider whether to approve the school district's $62 million plan or send it back to the Juneau School Board for revisions.
"We acknowledge the urgent need for the high school," said committee member Ken Koelsch. "The design should reflect current funding available."
Voters in 1999 approved $50 million in city bonds for a high school at Dimond Park, contingent on getting at least half of the cost reimbursed from the state.
The public works committee reviewed a plan submitted by the school district after a year of work by architects, community members and school officials. The district's proposed school would serve 1,050 students, with an expansion capacity of 1,500 students. It would cost about $62 million, requiring new approval from voters.
Under state and city law, the district is tasked with developing a school design, while the city must approve payment for construction.
Over recent weeks, city staff members have questioned the school district's plan, recommending that the city build a smaller, less-expensive school, keeping within the project's original budget.
School officials have complained that a smaller school will not meet the community's desire for parity between high schools downtown and in the Mendenhall Valley. The school can be downsized only so far before the character of the design is lost, they added.
"At what point does a plum become a prune - you shrink it and shrink it and shrink it," outgoing schools Superintendent Gary Bader said at the meeting. "We are concerned that without any details, shrinking (the high school) any more is not a possibility."
Bader said the school recommended by city staff would be too small for the Valley population eventually, according to district population estimates. Some high school students would have to be bused past the new school to attend Juneau-Douglas High School downtown, defeating the purpose of building a new school, he said.
"You cannot build a fully functional school, equal to JD High (under the original $50 million budget)," said School Board President Chuck Cohen. "The last thing the school district wants to do is anything that will increase the cost to local taxpayers."
In 1999 voters approved a bond package for a $13 million renovation of JDHS and $50 million to build a new high school. Over the last four years, the costs of both projects have increased, due in part to inflation and higher labor costs. The cost of the JDHS renovation is now about $21 million, while the cost of the proposed high school is about $62 million.
If the Assembly passes the $62 million plan for the new high school, voters will have to approve the cost at a special election.
Whether a more expensive school costs local taxpayers more money depends on how much the state reimburses the city.
Voters in 1999 passed city bonds that required at least a 50 percent state reimbursement of $50 million, leaving voters with a $25 million burden.
Under a law passed last year, Juneau could be reimbursed for a $50 million project at 70 percent, leaving locals with a $15 million burden. That's about $100 a year less in property taxes for the average taxpayer than for the larger school, city officials said. Or Juneau could be reimbursed for a $62 million school at 60 percent, leaving locals with a $25 million burden - the same as voters agreed to in 1999.
The Public Works and Facilities Committee and city staff have recommended downsizing the school to fit within the original $50 million budget. Such a project would not require a special election, but would require time to redesign the school.
The downsized school would have the same characteristics as the larger school, including a gym and auditorium, but would serve only about 860 students, with an expansion capacity of 1,100.
City staff justified their recommendation with population projections from the state Department of Labor that indicate a zero-growth rate for Juneau. School district population projections are much higher, based on the average growth over the last 20 years.
"We don't think the school district plan is unreasonable, if the city wants to approve more money and build an oversized building," said City Architect Catherine Fritz.
She said city staff were just exploring the option of keeping the school within its original budget while shrinking it to a size that will receive the maximum level of state reimbursement.
"I am very concerned from what I am hearing in the community about going out for more bonding," said committee Chairwoman Jeannie Johnson. "I am not against education, I am concerned about the additional burden on the taxpayers."
Half a dozen members of the public turned out at last night's meeting, most urging the body to pass the school district's plan.
"I will not vote for any of you who do not stand on this issue," said parent Stacy Goade. "I think there are a lot of people in the community who feel the same way and you will hear from them on Election Day."
Julia O'Malley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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