Valley school momentum hits the wall

Initiative, spring bidding schedule vie for community's commitment

Posted: Sunday, February 01, 2004

Juneau-Douglas High School is overcrowded - walk the halls and you'll see, one person says. The school isn't overcrowded - just take a look, another person says.

Having two high schools will hurt the students' education, a man says. No, plainly it will help the kids, says a woman.

Voters will have to wade through those differences of opinion if they decide whether to block construction of a second high school in Juneau.

On Friday, the city issued blank petition booklets to a citizens group sponsoring such an initiative. The sponsors have until 9 a.m. March 1 to garner the signatures of at least 2,408 registered voters.

If the Juneau Assembly doesn't pass an ordinance substantially similar to the initiative, the issue will go to voters in a special election.

Voters will have to make value judgments, live with uncertainty, weigh the short term against the long term - and take risks no matter what they decide.

Nearly four years after voters approved bonds to renovate JDHS and build a high school at Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley, the city is close to putting the Dimond project out to bid. The delay was partly caused by waiting for the state Legislature to authorize partial reimbursement of the cost.

But enough time has passed since the bond election that some residents say it's clear the community doesn't need the school. Enrollments have been static or declining in recent years. Others say the Juneau School District can't afford to run a second high school at a time of budget cuts.

Proponents of two schools say JDHS is overcrowded. It has about 1,600 students and is suited for about 1,170 students. The overcrowding has been lessened by using the adjacent Marie Drake building for classes, but the district needs Drake for other purposes, said Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

"I'm able to see firsthand the overcrowded conditions," said Jan Carlile, parent of a freshman. "I can't help but think we're going to need (a second school) eventually, and the longer we wait, the more expensive it becomes."

Susan Brailey said her family moved from Juneau to Olympia, Wash., three years ago partly because she was concerned about putting her children in an overcrowded JDHS.

"Hearing about just wall-to-wall people - that didn't appeal to me," she said.

But now that JDHS has completed much of a roughly $27 million renovation, (reimbursed at 70 percent by the state) some teachers and students say the school doesn't feel overcrowded.

"The halls are wide. The facility's shiny and new," said JDHS science teacher Clay Good. "It's a beautiful place to be. And it's not crowded."

Crowded? "Not really," said sophomore Pedro Martinez. "Actually, now that (the renovation) is done, it doesn't seem too crowded."

Proponents of the new school say two smaller schools of about 800 students will be more personal and improve student achievement. About a third of a JDHS freshman class will drop out by the end of its senior year.

"Students feel like they are part of the school," said Vivian Dailey, principal at 900-student North Pole High School near Fairbanks, of schools that size. "You have more opportunities to coach those kids who get lost in the shuffle."

Proponents also point out that the Legislature has created a window of opportunity, ending in 2004, for cities to authorize bonds and be eligible for reimbursement of some school-construction costs. If voters reject a new high school now, they may have to pay a lot more later, even for a smaller school.

"The likelihood that that sweet deal will repeat is not," said Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

Opponents say the financial risk is that jobs, courses and academic programs will be dropped to pay for running a new school.

The city's timing to bid the construction project this spring shortly follows the district's announcement that it faces a $2.1 million deficit next school year. District officials have said they may have to lay off 26 teachers next year, including six at JDHS, and 20 teachers in the year after that, including five at JDHS.

"I think it's poor timing for a new school," said Chester Durand, the day custodian at JDHS and vice president of the Juneau Support Staff Association. "I'm opposed to it. They can't afford to staff it. We're looking at budget cuts."

Dave Palmer, the former city manager who is spearheading the proposed initiative, said the community should look at building a new high school when enrollments match what voters were told in 1999 they would be by now.

The district projected 2,100 high school students for 2004, but there are only 1,700 students, 100 of whom are in an alternative school housed for now in a separate building.

Sue Reishus-O'Brien, parent of five children, said the city's population will only grow. She supports the new school.

"I'm looking at not only what's happening in the school system now, but what's going to happen down the road," she said.

Voters were told in city information pamphlets that both high schools would be comprehensive, Palmer added.

"In my mind, that means we wouldn't have fewer programs in one school than in another," he said.

From the start, district officials have said that only JDHS would have wood and metal shops and an automotive program. The auto program uses the University of Alaska Southeast vocational building across Egan Drive from JDHS.

Some folks have been concerned about the disparity in vocational programs. Shop teacher Craig Mapes has said all along that both schools should offer essentially the same learning opportunities.

Now it's occurring to more teachers and parents to wonder how both schools can offer the same range of specialized courses such as the arts, world languages and advanced academics.

In many cases, only one teacher handles a specialty. And splitting the enrollments between two schools halves the pool of students at each school for such electives.

"Nobody's given me a good example of how they would handle a kid who wanted to take auto shop or wood shop and lives in the Valley," said Steve Squires, who teaches auto and small-engine courses at JDHS. "I'll lose half my audience as far as kids wanting to take the class."

Margo Waring, chairwoman of a JDHS parent advisory committee on advanced programs, said having two high schools will make it hard to meet enrollment thresholds for such courses.

JDHS already has cut back on its advanced placement courses because too few students enroll in them. Those courses impress college admissions officers and can earn students college credits while they're in high school.

"Are they going to bus kids? Is one school going to be designated for AP classes and another is not?" Waring asked. "... How can a community like this say it's going to give up on sending its kids to competitive colleges? It's hard to go to that type of college without having that kind of background."

It won't be easy to split the faculty between the schools, said JDHS science department chairman Erik Lundquist. The federal No Child Left Behind education law requires secondary-school teachers to be well-qualified in the subjects they teach.

"If we split the staff and want to offer the same curriculum, we have to have teachers who can teach many things," Lundquist said.

Tom Manning, one of JDHS's two art teachers, said he favors two high schools, but thinks splitting the teaching staff in subjects such as the arts and foreign languages "will not offer two equal programs even close to what we offer here."

Music teacher Julia Bastuscheck, who travels between JDHS and Floyd Dryden Middle School by choice so she can offer a sustained string-instrument program, said, "It's very exhausting and takes a lot of personal organization, energy and commitment."

Superintendent Cowan said the specific programs at the new school will be decided at the building level. That decision won't take place until a year before the school opens so affected parents, students and staff can work with the district to define the school community.

But the general plan is to split the staff. Specialists such as a teacher of Japanese may be asked to work one semester at one school, and the next semester at the other, Cowan said. It's not unusual for high schools to offer a particular elective every other semester.

If the district can offer regular busing, or if city buses are convenient, some students may choose to travel to the other school at lunch and take specialized classes there in the afternoon.

The district will try to encourage more students to take advanced courses so that more will be offered, Cowan said. Some such courses may be taken by distance-learning methods, she said.

Although students likely will enroll in either high school based on where they live, the district expects to offer exemptions for Valley students who want to enroll at JDHS for its vocational program, Cowan said. The district will need to figure out how it can provide busing, she added.

One of the Mat-Su area's four high schools has offered a districtwide vocational program, but not busing to it. That has pretty much limited the program to juniors and seniors who have cars, said Kim Floyd, spokeswoman for the Mat-Su schools.

Now the Mat-Su district plans to build a separate vocational school.

Voters agreed in June 2003 to add $12.6 million to the Dimond Park school's budget, knowing the most recent enrollments and knowing they could build a smaller school and save money by not approving the bonds.

What's changed since then? Maybe the anxiety level among parents and teachers because of the district's proposed budget cuts. There's nothing like the prospect of layoffs and larger class sizes to get people's attention.

Science teacher Good, who is one of the initiative sponsors, said not all the issues were aired in the June election.

"There hasn't been an organized effort by any group of elected leaders or ad hoc groups to educate the community about the downsides," he said.

Other citizens might feel they're being outmaneuvered by the initiative. A 55 percent majority voted for bonds in 1999 and 2003 believing that JDHS would be fixed up and a Valley school would be built.

Part of what drove the desire to renovate JDHS was to make it comparable to a new Valley school. Now that the JDHS renovation is nearly complete, it turns out there may be no Valley school.

"I think this is a group of people that have always been opposed to the (Valley) school and worked very hard to kill it from inside the city," said Stan Ridgeway, an Assembly member and former School Board member.

Not everyone wants to pull the plug on the new school.

The Juneau Chamber of Commerce, for example, advocated for the June 2003 bonds and hasn't seen a reason to change its position, said Chamber President Mike Story.

"From a business perspective, we have members who have lost employees as their kids enter high school because they didn't want kids in that facility (JDHS)," Story said.

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