Empire editorial: Support district's design for new Valley high school

Posted: Sunday, January 26, 2003

The Juneau Assembly Committee of the Whole met last Wednesday to continue discussion on the final concept for the Mendenhall Valley high school project. There are many complex issues to consider in making a final decision. Voters approved $50 million for a second high school in 1999 to begin construction in 2004. The time line for nailing down the final concept for the project has drawn out and now the opening date for the school has been moved back to 2006 providing that the project is approved soon.

The working schematic now in front of the Assembly is the result of a committee made up of Assembly and School Board members, city staff and private citizens. The resulting concept provides for a well thought out, functional but not luxurious facility that is scaled to meet the future demand for up to 1,500 students.

Many things have changed during the four years since the school project was approved. In 1999 voters were told they would bear up to half the cost of the project, or $25 million, which would be taxed at $121 per $100,000 of assessed value on their property with the other half funded by the state.

Today's extremely favorable interest rates combined with the more generous funding formula provided through recent legislation makes the school district's proposal a better value. With state reimbursement for 60 percent of the project cost, the impact on property tax is expected to be $89 per $100,000 of assessed value, far less than originally projected.

City staff is advocating that 38,000 square feet be cut out of the 212,000 square feet proposed for the school in order to qualify for more favorable state reimbursement at 70 percent. While this approach may have merit on the surface, arriving at the constricted size may prove to be unworkable, and unduly limit possibilities for future expansion.

Inflation and rising construction costs have contributed to the higher end cost of the school, making the $50 million figure somewhat outdated.

The School Board's project also has been scaled back to accommodate just 1,050 students in the beginning instead of the 1,200 as originally planned.

A good deal of debate has centered on the issue of just how much Juneau's high school population will expand over the coming years. The city staff involved in review of the school design forecasts flat growth, while the figure that the state Department of Education uses for Juneau is 1.67 percent annual growth, which would dictate that the new high school would exceed its phase one capacity in nine or 10 years, requiring more investment in the school.

No one can say for certain what Juneau's demographics will look like in 10 years, but it could be a very costly and shortsighted mistake to plan for no growth and then have to deal with another expensive retrofitting project such as the one we are now funding at a cost of $20 million at Juneau-Douglas High School. The idea of planning for no growth in our high school population sends a message that we as a community lack vision for the future.

Construction of a new high school in Juneau happens once every 50 years, and the new Valley school should be deserving of the same support that similar projects in Kenai, Anchorage, Fairbanks and even Craig have been given.

There will be tremendous competition for the pool of money the Legislature has provided for debt reimbursement for education projects statewide. The money may not last long. The opportunity to stretch Juneau's education dollar so far may never happen again. This is the time to be in the front of the buffet line rather then at the end.

The Assembly did the right thing by introducing an ordinance to free up $837,000 to continue the design phase of the project. Since time is of the essence, design work on the core portion of the Valley school can proceed while the rest of the concept is being finalized. The first reading of the ordinance will take place at the Assembly meeting tomorrow night.

Civic projects on this scale rarely are finalized without a healthy amount of debate and compromise. The Assembly members are to be commended for the many long hours they have devoted to the meetings and discussion throughout the review process. They have not taken lightly their role in making this monumental decision. It appears a true compromise will be struck soon, with school officials also showing a willingness to rein in the cost of the project.

The Assembly should make a final decision on the school district's schematic Monday evening. If the Assembly decides to approve the school district's recommended schematic, voters will have their chance to weigh in at a special election to be held later.

The concept presented by the school district represents a necessary and wise investment in the future of education for our community.

Don Smith



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