Residents call for ballot initiative to block new Valley high school

Posted: Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Citizens have begun the political process to ask the Juneau Assembly or voters to stop construction of a second high school.

Five organizers presented an initiative to City Clerk Laurie Sica on Tuesday afternoon.

The initiative seeks to block the spending of bonds that voters authorized in 1999 to build a high school at Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley. School planners hoped to start construction on a 1,070-student school this summer.

The sponsors are former city manager Dave Palmer, teachers Clay Good and Kathleen Wiest, businessman Dave Hanna and state employee Carol White.

If Sica approves their filing, the sponsors will have 30 days to gather at least 2,408 signatures to put the initiative before the Assembly or the voters. A special election could be several months off.

Some residents are concerned that the Juneau School District can't afford to offer two comprehensive high schools. Others believe the planned school is too large, or just not needed.

"I was hoping for a process for city leaders as well as voters to back out of something," Good said. "We have a case of buyers' remorse."

Voters approved nearly $50 million in bonds for the school that year, and added $12.6 million in 2003.

The initiative says the city would refrain from putting out to bid a new high school that is funded wholly or partly by bonds approved in 1999 until Juneau has at least 2,100 high school students, the Juneau School Board identifies at least $1.67 million in funding for the school's first year of operation, and the school is designed for 1,200 students.

Those conditions reflect what voters were told in 1999, either in the city's voter information pamphlet or in the ballot measure.

"We're saying, don't spend the money until what you told the voters happens," Palmer said.

Sue Reishus-O'Brien, mother of five schoolchildren, said she can't believe anyone would want to wait until there are 2,100 high school students before building a new school.

There are nearly 1,700 high school students in Juneau now, 1,575 of whom are housed at Juneau-Douglas High School, which has a state-rated capacity of 1,170 students.

"The school can't handle the quantity of students now," Reishus-O'Brien said. "How can they handle the extra 400 students? You can't just hang them in a closet."

A special election likely would overlap the period this spring in which school planners hoped to bid construction work. Even if voters turn down the initiative, the election might occur so late in the spring that the city wouldn't be able to authorize construction this year.

Cost estimators have said that every year of delay would add about $1.5 million to the project's costs because of inflation.

City Manager Rod Swope said he would ask the Assembly how to proceed with the school's planning between the time a special election is called and the election.

"In any case, if he (Palmer) gets the signatures, it's going to delay the project. You could possibly lose the construction season," Swope said.

The school district has scheduled a public forum for Feb. 26 to discuss what programs would be offered at the new high school. The forum's location has yet to be decided.

The initiative sponsors have a Web site at

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