The Juneau Assembly approved $837,000 in design funding for a Mendenhall Valley high school Monday, despite concerns about an alternate concept that might be used if voters reject more funding for the project.
The Assembly last month decided to forward a $60.8 million design for a new Mendenhall Valley school to voters, after turning down a city proposal for a smaller, $50 million school. Under current plans, voters would be asked to issue $12.6 million in general obligation bonds for the new high school at a special election June 3.
The $60.8 million school would serve 1,100 students at first and could expand to fit 1,500 students. Voters approved about $49 million for the project in 1999 and 2001.
The Assembly on Monday voted 7-2 to spend $837,000 in bond funds to continue design work through the election. Mayor Sally Smith and Deputy Mayor Ken Koelsch voted no, citing concerns about the layout of smaller, $50 million school.
The design for a smaller school would lop off a 13-classroom wing, an auxiliary gym and part of a commercial kitchen, according to a memo from architect Paul Voelkers. The smaller school would house 807 students to start, but could expand to 1,500 students in future phases.
Koelsch said he's worried about the need for Juneau-Douglas High School if Juneau builds a big high school in the valley. JDHS now houses 1,650 students.
"We're spending money for a 1,500 core whether the voters approve the additional funding or not," he said. "My druthers would be that if we're talking about two small educational units as opposed to one large one, that we have a small one in the valley."
Smith said she doesn't think voters are being given an option between the two schools.
"I kind of feel the public isn't getting a fair shot at this," she said. "It's like you get the whole school, you want to buy it now or you want to buy it later?"
But Juneau School Board President Chuck Cohen said the community and school district have put together a school design that is flexible and will allow for expansion. The June election is a referendum on funding, not design, he said.
"Schools are designed to last a long time and should appropriately take into consideration the future needs of the community," he said. "We believe the community supports the completion of the school as originally planned, which has a construction budget increase due to inflation and a time delay. Even with this increase in the actual construction budget, the cost to the community is less than when the community voted on the last bond."
In 1999, Juneau voters approved bonds that called for two equal, full-service high schools with substantially parallel programs, Cohen added.
"We intend to carry out that mandate of the voters," he said.
Assembly member Stan Ridgeway, a former Juneau School Board member, said the new school is based on multiple public meetings with community members. He urged his colleagues to move forward with the design funding.
Assembly member Marc Wheeler said it would be up to the school district, not the Assembly, to adjust the project if voters don't approve the $60.8 million school package.
Meanwhile, the June election might include more than bonding for a new school. Koelsch asked city staff members about adding to the ballot separate funding for improvements at Juneau-Douglas High School. The entrance to JDHS, furniture, sports fields and parking are among the items that could benefit from additional money, he said.
"Hopefully the school district will bring forth something we could put on the ballot at the same time," Koelsch said. "Not adding it to the valley (school), but as a separate item."
Cohen said the school board originally proposed and still supports rebonding for JDHS.
"How that additional funding would be spent is a decision that would have to be taken up by the school board based on the needs of the projects as they move forward," he said.
Joanna Markell can be reached at email@example.com.
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