Citizens seek vote to stop new school

Ex-city manager collecting signatures for ballot initiative

Posted: Tuesday, January 27, 2004

Some citizens want the Juneau Assembly or voters to block a new high school until there are more students and a clear idea of how the school district can afford to run it.

Former City Manager Dave Palmer said he intends to collect the notarized signatures of five registered voters by this afternoon to ask the city clerk for petition booklets for a ballot initiative.

The petitioners want an Assembly ordinance or a voters' measure that would not allow spending of bond proceeds authorized in 1999 for a high school in the Mendenhall Valley until three conditions are met.

Those conditions are that there be at least 2,100 high school students in Juneau, that the district identify at least $1.67 million in funding for the first year of operations and that the school be sized for 1,200 students initially.

The conditions reflect what voters were told in the 1999 election, Palmer said. At that time, 55 percent of voters authorized the sale of about $50 million in bonds for a high school at Dimond Park, conditioned on partial state reimbursement. They also authorized up to $13 million to renovate Juneau-Douglas High School.

Voters, again by a 55-45 percent ratio, added $12.6 million to the new school's budget in June 2003.

City and Juneau School District planners hope to bid site work and construction of the school this spring, with completion due in August 2006.

School Board President Mary Becker said the new school is needed because JDHS remains overcrowded by 400 to 500 students. She said the new school would meet Juneau's needs for the next 50 years.

"I believe our community is going to grow," Becker said. "If I didn't think our community was going to grow, I wouldn't want it, either."

Becker also said Juneau has a short time frame to build a new school and still receive substantial state reimbursement.

The Legislature is allowing cities that bond for new schools between June 1999 and January 2005 to receive 60 percent reimbursement. In the past, the state has partly reimbursed the cost of new schools, but only if the Department of Education ranked the school high on a list of priorities.

But Palmer said high school enrollments haven't kept pace with the district's projections, and the project needs another look. In 1999, the district projected there would be 2,100 high school students by this year, when the new school was first slated to open.

The district has 1,694 high school students now.

The 1999 bond proposition estimated annual operating costs of $1,668,000 for the new school, Palmer noted.

"I thought that was kind of low back then, and I'm sure five years later it's going to be way low," he said.

In late 2002, the district estimated operating costs at $1.16 million.

The third condition on Palmer's proposed initiative refers to the size of the school, which in 1999 was planned to hold 1,200 students. Core areas - such as the library, gym and commons - were sized for 1,500 students in case the school is expanded.

Planners now intend to build a school sized for about 1,070 students with a 1,500-student core. The school's new size was debated by the Assembly before the June 2003 special election that provided more funds. The city's voter information pamphlet said the school would suit about 800 students if extra funding were not approved, and about 1,100 students if it were approved.

"The people in June knew the population of our high school and our community, and yet they again voted to support this high school," said Becker, board president. "They can still see that we're overcrowded."

But Palmer said he wants another public process to look at alternatives. He and other citizens have said they're concerned the district won't be able to offer two comprehensive high schools, especially after projected cuts districtwide of 26 teachers next school year and 20 the year after that.

"How can (the district) possibly hope to duplicate programs when it's really difficult to run the programs we have now?" Palmer asked. "For me, personally, I don't want the kids to have to choose between a language or an advanced class, or metal shop or band, based on where they live."

Palmer and others recently have raised before the School Board and the Assembly the issues of what courses and after-school activities would be offered at each high school. District officials are preparing updated information for a meeting of the school's planners on Feb. 3 and for a joint meeting of the School Board and the Assembly on Feb. 5.

District officials have said in general that the state offers more funds for two medium-sized high schools than for one large high school, because the state takes into account economies of scale. Past estimates placed the extra state funding at about $800,000.

If City Clerk Laurie Sica approves the petition committee's affidavit, she will issue blank petition booklets, which at least 2,408 registered voters must sign within 30 days. The Assembly then would have 45 days to pass a substantially similar ordinance. If it doesn't, the initiative would go before the voters within 60 days in a special election.

Elections cost about $35,000, Sica said.

• Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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