My Turn: Valley high school is not needed and costs too much

Posted: Wednesday, February 18, 2004

The fix has been in on the proposed new Valley school for years. Perhaps that is why recent efforts to revisit the justification for building an expensive and unnecessary new facility have been meet with a mixture of fear, loathing and hysteria within the educational establishment.

This entire mess was predictable and the indirect result of bad choices on the part of the political caste during the past decade. Construction of a new school as presently configured is going to end badly for students, teachers and especially taxpayers.

For a while, back in the late '90s, it was possible to argue Juneau needed a new high school and that a new senior high should built at Dimond Park location in the Valley. In 2004, if you take a sober look at Juneau's projected growth, existing enrollment figures and the economics of education in Alaska the conclusion is obvious: Construction of a new school is guaranteed to shortchange the education needs of our students.

The basic problem with building a new school is that the assumptions used to promote new school construction were seriously flawed. Juneau is decades away from needing the student capacity two schools would provide if we plow ahead with construction of the new school for secondary students. More importantly, spending millions on a new school in the Valley has nothing to do with improving education in our community.

A number of voters and many concerned parents argue that this issue has already been decided or that this is "for the kids" and worthy of our support. It surely is a measure of our collective concern and passion for education that this community is willing to consider spending over $60 million for a new school but that doesn't change the fundamental question of whether we need a new school or whether construction will improve education in our community.

The proposed new school is a hugely ambitious monument to architectural ego. The new school would probably look swell in suburban Tucson or Connecticut but seems a little daffy in a place recently vacated by a glacier. The arrangement of the proposed new school within Dimond Park is atrocious from a pedestrian perspective. It's also important to acknowledge that the cost of operating the new school will create havoc with a school district budget already under huge pressure to provide minimal services.

Much of the momentum for building a new school is derived from a general frustration many parents harbor as a result of the current education system. In too many cases inadequate teachers work alongside truly creative and productive teachers. Many parents have a general sense that the school district superintendents are selected on political criteria rather than administrative acumen. Not uncommon among parents is the sense that the existing high school administration is mediocre. All of which leads to a diffuse sense of unhappiness with the education system that impels voters to work toward new school construction in the belief that at least the students will have a new place in which to receive their lessons.

Addressing the legitimate needs of our community's students has become freighted with emotion. The talk too often centers on sports teams, crowding and my personal favorite: where the students will park their automobiles. When trenchant observers of this chatter ask whether we really need the space or how we will staff the new edifice or whether we can afford the bloated project they are basically told to sit down, shut up and go along with the deal because the experts have spoken.

Sorry, I'm not buying this deal cooked up by the experts and self-proclaimed educational luminaries. I've watched the government bureaucracy and their handmaidens in the consulting professions wreck havoc on the thoughtful delivery of essential governmental services in our town and Alaska for decades. The results have been unimpressive.

Each and every person working to revisit this expensive and unnecessary school deserves to be commended, not vilified. With a little thought and some considered action, Juneau can comfortably house and teach each and every student in our education system without spending millions for a school we don't need and cannot afford.

• Joe Geldhof is an attorney in Juneau and the parent of one JDHS graduate; another daughter is enrolled in JDHS.

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