My Turn: School debate is a parody of parity

Posted: Friday, January 17, 2003

I n the Jan. 9 Empire article "Panel passes plan for new high school," our School Board president asserts the last thing the board wants to do is increase costs to local taxpayers. But then he continues to argue for a larger than necessary school for the sake of valley-town parity. As an educator, I am disappointed that the dialog over the educational needs of Juneau's teens has been reduced to a parody on valley-town parity.

Having attended and/or taught at good ol' JDHS since 1975, I'd like to think there is much more at stake than parity; more at stake than the establishment of separate, but equally under-funded, educational communities at opposite ends of the Gastineau Channel.

To the extent that high school teachers are knowledgeable about the population they serve, I would like to share why I, also, oppose the proposed new high school: 1. It is lacking educational vision and; 2. It was based on erroneous population assumptions and; 3. It will cause financial hardship for the rest of Juneau's schools, taxpayers and businesses.

Regarding educational vision, JDHS does a very good job of serving a large portion of the student population. Unfortunately, what I, and many of my colleagues, see in the population dynamics of our classrooms is the tragic loss of too many students whose potential slips through the cracks in our system - in part due to a lack of quality program and facility choices. Juneau's teens need educational choices more than they need valley-town parity.

The need for a large new school was based partly on exaggerated, dire predictions of student number increases; students that didn't appear. While recognizing the legitimate need for more facility space for high school students, I have wondered at times over the years if the present facility couldn't be better managed for crowding. Unfortunately, exacerbated crowding further justifies the board's dream for a big, shiny, expensive, new high school.

Remember a few years ago when Juneau voters rejected the board's previous request for a big new high school? So the board brought back a scaled-down version for voter approval. But once again, their proposal has grown too big for its britches. I can certainly understand why city officials may be justified in questioning the board's plans.

There are other expenses to consider besides the cost of the building, increased operation costs and staffing expenses. Just wait until the taxpayers and businesses of the Chamber of Commerce discover how expensive two football, baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, wrestling, basketball, swimming, track, cross country, dance, debate, drama teams, etc. are. Don't forget to add the cost of travel and uniforms to the tab, too. Parity ain't cheap. As it is, coaches have had their seasons, hours, and pay cut over recent years because the district claims they can't afford the cost of the presently under-funded extracurricular activities.

Why can't the district keep enough qualified substitutes on hand? How many quality educational support staff have left our schools because they could not afford the cost of health insurance on top of their stagnant salaries? How can Juneau hope to attract and keep quality teachers if the district can't fund competitive contracts? We should not squander our limited financial resources on facilities that are inappropriate to the scope of our needs. The impacts of over-squeezing an already tight budget will not be what's best for kids, or anyone, for that matter.

Wouldn't it be more practical to renovate the Marie Drake facility to relieve population pressure on the JDHS campus? How about a shiny, new vocational/technical center at Dimond Park or Kmart? (No parking problems there.) A larger Juneau cyber school program (which doesn't require a large facility because the students do their lessons from home) could attract back a number of Juneau's families who've abandoned the Juneau schools for cyber programs offered elsewhere. There are so many cost-effective alternatives that would avoid the huge expense of duplicating programs and facilities that don't create real educational choices.

I'd like to thank the Assembly and Planning Commission for challenging our school board to further explore the educational needs of Juneau's high school students and bring a proposal before voters that is practical and solves more problems than it creates. Isn't that really what our children need and deserve more than valley-town parity?

Clay Good is a science teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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