Voters to get say on $60.8 million school

Assembly cuts project budget by 2 percent

Posted: Tuesday, January 28, 2003

The Juneau Assembly on Monday decided to send local voters a $60.8 million plan for a Mendenhall Valley high school.

In doing so, the Assembly approved the Juneau School District's schematic design for the school at Dimond Park, but cut the project budget by 2 percent, to $60.8 million.

Voters have approved $48.3 million for the project. An election this spring would ask for approval of another $12.5 million at the most, schools Superintendent Gary Bader said. Under current plans, the school would open in 2006.

The Assembly has been weighing a $62 million school plan from the school district against a $50 million plan for a smaller school put forth by city staff.

Assembly members Randy Wanamaker and Dale Anderson offered the $60.8 million proposal as a compromise. Wanamaker said the community will need a larger school when Coeur Alaska Inc. reopens the Kensington Mine north of Juneau. A bigger school will benefit after-school programs and keep students from dropping out, he added.

"I've reviewed and appreciated the city's work, but I'm persuaded the Board of Education proposal best meets the needs of the community," he said.

The vote on the $60.8 million plan was 8-1 in favor with Deputy Mayor Ken Koelsch voting no. The Assembly voted down a $50 million school with Koelsch casting the sole vote in support.

The school district's $62 million plan would house 1,050 students at first and could expand to fit 1,500 students. The city's plan would house 885 students to start and could expand to fit 1,100.

Koelsch said he thought the school district's population-growth estimates for Juneau were high, especially with the Wards Cove seafood processing company shutting down. A bigger school will mean more operational costs, he added.

"I don't think we have that sort of population-growth trend in this town," he said, referring to the district's figures. "I don't think $50 million is chump change."

Bader said the $60.8 million budget is workable and shouldn't affect the project drastically. By cutting the nonconstruction budget, the district should be able to build a school for 1,050 students, he said.

"I think to have a large majority of the Assembly voting in favor of this project gives it the type of endorsement we would like to see as we go into a bond election," he said. "With projects of this size, we hope the overhead can be reduced. ... Everyone is tightening their belts just a little bit and it won't result in a lesser facility at all."

If voters approve the new bonding, the state would reimburse the city for 60 percent of the cost of the new school, or approximately $36 million, as well as 60 percent of the interest on the bonds.

Property tax figures weren't available immediately for the $60.8 million school, but the school district's $62 million proposal would have resulted in an $89 property-tax increase per $100,000 in assessed value. Property tax for the $60.8 million school would be less than that, Bader said.

In 1999, voters approved a $50 million school for 1,200 students dependent on at least 50 percent state reimbursement. Under that scenario, the property tax increase would have been no more than $121 per $100,000 in assessed value.

Juneau has about 1,700 high school students, of which about 100 attend an alternative high school that is separate from Juneau-Douglas High School downtown. JDHS properly accommodates 1,200 students, according to the school district.

Marie Darlin, a lifelong Juneau resident who graduated from Juneau High School, asked the Assembly to accept the school district's design and reduce overcrowding at JDHS. At one point, Juneau had three high schools - a Catholic high school, a high school in Douglas and Juneau High School, she said.

"I want to urge you to approve the schematic design of the School Board," she said. "That's what they're there for. That's what we elect them for."

The Assembly voted down a proposal that would have required the district to submit a peer review of the project to the city's Public Works and Facilities Committee. The city normally brings in outside experts to review large projects, and the high school design will be no different, City Architect Catherine Fritz said.

Bader, who objected to the extra step of reporting back to the Assembly, said a peer review would take place no matter what the Assembly decided. The review meetings will be open to the public, and the Assembly is welcome to attend, he said.

Some Assembly members suggested Monday that the city and the school district reconstitute a joint city-schools school project planning team. It had dissolved when the Assembly, against the School Board's wishes, approved renovating JDHS before building the Valley school.

Bader said the district would welcome a joint planning team.

"Given what happened this evening, we're ripe to have the leadership of the Assembly and the leadership of the School Board get together and start working on this process, holding hands and doing the best job for the community," he said. "I never really thought the gulf was as wide between the School Board and the Assembly as some people had characterized it."

The earliest a local election could be scheduled on the high school project is May 13, said City Clerk Laurie Sica.

Joanna Markell can be reached at

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