School plan's fate now with the Assembly

Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2003

After weeks of heated public meetings, the Juneau Assembly will consider Monday night whether to approve the school district's plan for a $62 million high school in the Mendenhall Valley.

Although that's more expensive than the school that voters approved in 1999, supporters say it will cost local taxpayers less than they agreed to pay at that time. Opponents say taxpayers could save even more with a smaller school and still meet Juneau's needs.

Juneau Assembly members Marc Wheeler, Jim Powell, Randy Wanamaker, and Stan Ridgeway have gone on the record supporting the school district's plan, which needs at least five votes to pass.

After hearing a case from city staff for building a smaller, less-expensive school, other Assembly members and Mayor Sally Smith have said they needed time to review the information before they decide at Monday's meeting.

"I think it is really exciting that we are moving forward with a Valley high school," said Jeannie Johnson. "The issue isn't if we are going to build a Valley high school, it is how much money we are going to spend."

The central issues for the undecided Assembly members are budget and size. Voters in 1999 approved bonding for about $50 million for the new school. The school district's proposed $62 million school would require a special election in April to approve the additional $12 million in bonding.

The election would cost $62,000, and to keep the project on schedule the Assembly would have to appropriate $837,000 to continue design work until the election.

City staff have presented a plan they say would build an adequate but smaller school for $50 million. Both plans would have to be constructed within a relatively tight timeline to be open for students in the fall of 2006.

The question of the school's size is based on different projections for Juneau's future population.

The school district, using an average population growth for the last 20 years, has projected growth that would require a school the size of Juneau-Douglas High.

The city, using numbers from the state demographer and a private consultant, projects Juneau's teenage population to remain steady, indicating that a smaller school would be sufficient. The parties agree that Juneau's student population now is less than it was during a "bulge" in the late 1990s.

There are about 1,700 high school students in Juneau, about 100 of whom attend the alternative high school in a building separate from JDHS. School district officials have said JDHS properly accommodates about 1,200 students.

"We trust the School Board to do the best job possible, and they have," said Mayor Sally Smith. "It is our job as the funding mechanism to carefully review all the plans to make sure they are appropriate to the size of our community and to make sure they fit with our funding ability."

The long and complex story that has led the city to this point begins in 1999 when voters, faced with a severely crowded JDHS, approved a bond package that included about $13 million to renovate JDHS and about $50 million for the design and construction of a high school at Dimond Park in the Valley.

The 1999 voter pamphlet promised voters a school that would house 1,200 students and have 33 classrooms, an auditorium with seating for 600 and a gym with seating for 1,750, among other attributes.

The ballot measure required that the state agree to reimburse at least half, or $25 million, of the project before all but $3 million of the local bonds could be sold. To cover the city's portion of the cost, the expense for a taxpayer under the 1999 bond issue could not exceed a maximum of about $121 per $100,000 of property over 15 years.

Under a recent law, schools can qualify for up to 70 percent state reimbursement if the size of the project is approved by the state Department of Education. The school plan forwarded by the school district is larger than the state recommends, in part because it is designed to accommodate growth, so it cannot qualify at the 70 percent level.

But under the law, the city can build any size school it wants and get 60 percent state reimbursement. As a result, for the school district's proposed $62 million school, the city's share of the school costs remains at about $25 million.

Neither school option on the table offers exactly what voters thought they were getting when they approved the school in 1999. But both proposals will cost the taxpayer less than the maximum they agreed to pay when they first approved the school.

After three years of development meetings, which included an Outside consultant, a design team, school officials, and members from the School Board, Assembly and community, the group selected the school district's current design. It's a two-story school with a central drum that houses all the common and administrative areas, with two classroom wings and the gym extending from the sides of the drum.

The school district proposal is for a 212,000-square-foot school (roughly the same size as JDHS) that initially houses 1,050 students, but which could be expanded to house 1,500. To start, the school would have 30 classrooms, an auditorium that seats 500 and a gym that seats 1,650, and an auxiliary gym. Because of lower interest rates, the cost to the average taxpayer would be around $89 per $100,000 of property over 15 years.

"The current model forwarded by the district represents a compromise, a reduction in what was forwarded (to voters) in 1999 that reflects a little less growth, while trying to save a little bit of money without undermining the core needs of the school," said Paul Voelckers, one of the school's architects from Minch Ritter Voelckers Architects in Juneau.

City Architect Catherine Fritz and City Engineer John Stone, under the direction of Interim City Manager John MacKinnon, have recommended a school plan that would stay within the $50 million budget approved in 1999.

They would shrink the school district's design to a size they believe would qualify for 70 percent state reimbursement. Some members of the Assembly's Public Works and Facilities Committee have concurred with Fritz and Stone, recommending that the Assembly send the plan back to the School Board and ask it to follow the city staff's model.

The 172,000-square-foot school in the city's proposal would house 885 students to start, with an expansion capacity of 1,150 students. The school would have the same size auditorium as the school district's proposal but with a slightly smaller gym, 24 classrooms, and no auxiliary gym. Under this proposal, taxpayers could pay as little as $51 per $100,000 of property value for 15 years.

"What it comes down to, at this point, is what makes the best sense for Juneau," said Fritz, pointing out that the school project is just one of several projects, such as the Valley pool and recreation center, the city will have to bond for in future years.

City staff have compared the city's bonding capacity of between $125 million and $135 million to a basket that can only hold so many eggs. The $62 million high school, they have said, is a big egg.

"That school is so big you could fit Treadwell Arena in (the unused space in) the attic," said Stone, looking over the design in a recent interview.

The School Board and the design team have questioned the city's staff proposal. The school cannot be shrunk much smaller than 172,000 square feet and still keep the integrity of the design, they said, but the smaller school is still slightly too large to qualify for 70 percent reimbursement from the state.

Fritz has said she is confident the state would apply variances that would allow the smaller school to qualify. But school district staff have said it is far more likely that the small school will receive reimbursement at the 60 percent level, resulting in relatively minor savings for taxpayers.

Also, the school district has argued that the larger school is a better long-term investment because more time would pass before Juneau would have to build another school. This argument, along with the reduction in taxes because of lower interest rates, persuaded the Juneau Chamber of Commerce to pass a resolution earlier this month supporting the school district's plan.

In an effort to compromise, the state has developed its own population projections by averaging the school district's and the city's growth projections.

The state now has a compromise growth rate for Juneau of 1.67 percent per year. Using the state's numbers, the school plan forwarded by the school district would need to be expanded to house 1,500 students in 2018 and would reach capacity in 2029. Using the same growth rate, the city's proposed school plan would need to be expanded in 2012, six years after it opens in 2006, and would reach capacity at 2021.

"Simply buying less school for less money is not necessarily a good investment if you are going to need more school for more money in the future," said School Board President Chuck Cohen.

City Engineer Stone also has questioned the design itself, saying the round drum shape will be more costly to build. School designer Voelckers said the cost difference between the round school and a school without a round shape is less that one-tenth of 1 percent of the school's cost.



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