District prepares to answer questions about new school

Assembly, School board to meet Thursday to discuss proposed school

Posted: Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Citizens' questions about a second high school range from how the school district can afford to run it to whether there are less expensive alternatives to building a new school.

At a meeting Tuesday of city and school district officials who are planning the school, Juneau Assembly member Jim Powell urged the district to account for all the costs in its proposed operating budget, right down to snow plowing.

"We need to have all the costs down because we're getting asked," he said. "It's a legitimate question."

Citizens' questions - gathered from letters and e-mails to the city and other sources - also touch on whether stagnant or declining enrollments are reason enough to put off building a second high school, and whether two smaller schools will be better or worse educationally than one large high school.

The Juneau Assembly and Juneau School Board are scheduled to meet at 5 p.m. Thursday at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School to talk about the proposed high school at Dimond Park, as well as the district's budget for next school year.

Planners of the Dimond Park high school, which will be sized for 1,080 students initially and cost $63 million, were preparing to bid the site work and construction this spring, hoping to finish the school by August 2006. The state is expected to reimburse 60 percent of the costs.

But a group of citizens is gathering signatures for an initiative that would block construction. They need 2,408 signatures to put the issue before the voters in a special election. The Assembly could pre-empt an election by passing an ordinance that's substantially similar to the initiative.

Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce said that if a special election is held, it probably will be in mid-May.

Dave Palmer, one of the initiative sponsors, said Tuesday the group has gathered at least 600 signatures since the city clerk gave out blank petition pamphlets on Friday.

In 1999, voters approved about $50 million in bonds for a new high school and $13 million to renovate Juneau-Douglas High School. Voters added about $12.5 million to each project in June 2003.

The initiative would block spending of the 1999 bonds on construction of a new school. About $3.4 million has been spent so far on its design, said city Engineering Director Roger Healy.

"Until the petition is certified, we're going full speed ahead," Pierce said.

Some of the citizens' questions deal with issues that were resolved years ago. But many residents are new to the community since 1999, said Assembly member Merrill Sanford, who supports a second high school.

The community decided in public forums whether to build a second high school or have one large high school, and what the new school would look like, said School Board member Alan Schorr.

"I don't think people need a history lesson anymore," Assembly member Jeannie Johnson told district officials Tuesday. "They need an economics lesson: Can we afford the decisions that we made in the past?"

District Superintendent Peggy Cowan presented an operating budget for the Dimond Park school that balances, based on new state revenue for having two smaller high schools, more city funding and cuts in other areas. The figures were based on the district's expenses and revenues this school year.

The district doesn't know whether the Legislature will give more money for schools, or help cities and school districts with large required payments into workers' retirement funds, Cowan said.

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