District offers answers to citizens' concerns about new high school

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2004

The city and the Juneau School District will post a 24-page document on their Web sites by next week giving the district's responses to citizens' questions about the proposed high school at Dimond Park, said schools Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

The district reviewed its responses at a joint work session of the Juneau School Board and the Juneau Assembly on Thursday night at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School.

Growing concerns about whether a second high school is needed or can be afforded crystallized last week in a petition drive to put an initiative before the voters to block the school. The Assembly has the option to pass an ordinance substantially the same as the initiative.

The city broke down the questions it has received from citizens into six categories. The district responded to numerous questions within those categories.

• How will the district fund the operation of two high schools in light of the current budget cuts?

• Will state reimbursement for construction be available in the future?

• Has the district considered less expensive alternatives?

• What are the enrollment projections, and have they changed enough since 1999 to justify not building a second high school?

• How will the quality of education be affected by the second high school, and how will the district balance program and staffing needs?

• What plans are there for community and social impacts such as community activities?

Cowan conceded the district is in a period of declining enrollments. But district officials and School Board members say they want to build a school that will meet Juneau's needs in the future.

The 1,070-student school at Dimond Park and Juneau-Douglas High School likely would be at 80 percent capacity if the new school were to open in August 2006, as originally planned. There are about 1,600 high school students in Juneau, not counting nearly 100 alternative students now housed in a separate building.

Assembly member Randy Wanamaker was hopeful that enrollments would rise. He said JDHS' enrollment is down by several hundred students at any given time just from dropouts.

"That's a lot of kids that we're writing off," he said. "We need to focus on bringing them back to the system."

Wanamaker pointed to the possible opening of the Kensington Mine near Berners Bay north of Juneau as a source of several hundred jobs and new residents.

Mayor Bruce Botelho said he has heard from citizens who understand the importance of overcrowding at JDHS. But they are concerned about the district's finances, and the difficulty of splitting the current high school faculty and losing the "critical mass" needed to offer a comprehensive school.

He asked district officials if they had considered reducing the crowding at JDHS by reconfiguring elementary schools for kindergartners to sixth-graders, middle schools for seventh- and eighth-graders, and a high school for grades nine to 12.

Botelho also asked whether the district had considered double shifts or a year-round schedule at JDHS.

School Board President Mary Becker said voters in 1998 turned down the idea of having 10th- through 12th-graders at one school and eighth- and ninth-graders at another. She said the board is looking 50 years into the future, and doesn't think the public wants double shifts "for life."

"So we are looking for the long term with the expectation of a good future for our community," Becker said.

Clay Good, a JDHS teacher who is one of the initiative sponsors, said they are preparing a response to district officials' answers and will post it on their Web site.

Any surprises at the meeting?

"I guess I'm surprised they don't have any bad things to say about their plan," he said. "Everything (in the district's responses) seems to support their plan. Their inability to consider negative aspects displays their agenda."

The district will hold a meeting from 5 to 7 p.m. Feb. 26 at Floyd Dryden Middle School to plan programs at the new high school.

Web links

For the Juneau School District's responses to citizens' questions, check www.juneau.org and www.jsd.k12.ak.us/ in the coming days. It's not certain when the document will be available. The citizens sponsoring an initiative to block a second high school said they expect to post a response on their Web site, www.juneaustudentsfirst.com.

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