Between now and about mid-March there is sure to be real discomfort, if not gnashing of teeth, over the Juneau School District's proposal for a second high school in Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley.
The controversy isn't because the proposal is anything new; in fact, Juneau voters have voted twice on the measure, the first time in 1998 when they rejected the idea of what would have been a Valley high school for grades 10,11 and 12 and a former Juneau-Douglas High School (JDHS) for ninth graders, and again in 1999 when they gave their OK for two schools for grades 9-12.
Since the 1999 vote, Juneauites have OK'd a $12.6 million improvement package for Juneau-Douglas High School and, just last June, they approved an additional $12.5 million for an auxiliary gymnasium and additional classrooms at what may be the Valley high school. I say "may be" because of an opposition group that has until March 1 to gather enough signatures - 2,408 of them - to block the new school. And so the plot thickens here in River City.
Arguments for and against a second high school are numerous and they are substantive. Proponents say the facility, which will come with a price tag of approximately $63 million, some of which will be reimbursed by the state, is sorely needed because of overcrowding at the 50-year-old JDHS. They also say two smaller schools with some 800 students will provide for more personal attention for students, will provide for a better social environment and will improve student achievement.
Backers say the state's law for reimbursing communities for a portion of the bonds they pass for such projects isn't long-lived and that Juneau schools must take what help is available from the state while it exists.
Opponents of a second school say that with student enrollments on the decline, a second school just isn't needed, and certainly not during these times of state budget cutbacks and the specter of teacher layoffs this year and next. They're also expressing concerns about staffing and course offerings at two high schools and how each would be managed. Another argument against the school is that of raising funds within the community for more sports teams, and that could easily be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Needing only 2,400 signatures, it seems likely opponents will easily have enough support to call for another vote on the second high school. There's also the possibility the Juneau Assembly could adopt a ordinance prohibiting further expenditure of bond monies for the facility, and that would override any referendum. Nonetheless, voters may have to decide the issue yet again within the next 90 days or so.
Approving a second high school is going to be tough for Juneau voters, I suspect, and that's cause for concern. While fiscal considerations are valid indeed, I don't think opponents should be swayed solely by today's economy. If the school is bypassed now and is needed several years henceforth, the costs for adding to (or replacing) JDHS will surely be prohibitive if there is no partial state reimbursement then. The old school may have aged none too gracefully in another decade or so and our options by then could be greatly limited.
What's most important in the next several weeks is for those on both sides of this issue to think about how we can best go about educating the next two generations of school children. Now isn't the time to be penny-wise and pound-foolish; 2004 may well be our best opportunity to provide for more and better education in the short term and to secure viable options for the much longer term.
Robert Hale is the Empire's publisher.