Empire editorial: Time for honesty about valley high

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2008

What happens if you build a high school and nobody wants to come?

That's what's happening at Thunder Mountain High School, the new school slated to open this fall in the Mendenhall Valley. Students who have a choice as to which high school they can attend have turned in cards indicating by a ratio of 3-to-1 that they'd rather go to Juneau-Douglas High School downtown.

That's galling to the many people in town who never wanted to build a second high school in the first place.

But what's also disturbing is how closed-mouth the school administration has been on what's really going on with students' choices. It's hard not to believe district officials are trying to spin the results from the questionnaires on school preferences.

After the initial deadline for students to turn in their school-choice cards, district officials had to be pressed for the numbers.

When Superintendent Peggy Cowan released them, they turned out to be incorrect. She announced that students who had a choice between schools chose to go to JDHS over the new school by a 2-1 margin.

But at Tuesday's Juneau School Board meeting, board member Mark Choate said he heard the ratio in favor of attending JDHS is actually 4 to 1. That was supported by a district official at that time.

Cowan was asked at that meeting to give a number of how many school-choice cards could be clearly interpreted. Cowan responded that night "about 660." The number is actually much higher, according to a school official, who said the vast majority of 290 cards deemed incorrect by the district clearly indicated a preference for JDHS. That number also was later backed up by district information.

The latest ratio for students in favor of JDHS over Thunder Mountain was 3:1. Whether that was the figure all the time or the number after more cards were turned in is unclear. It's hard to tell when information was so difficult to obtain.

Cowan originally claimed a number of cards couldn't be counted because they weren't completed properly. In reality, these "mismarked" cards were filled out - they indicated JDHS as the students' first choice but did not include a second choice, as requested. That may not have been the answer school officials wanted, but it's still an answer. Claiming that the cards were filled out incorrectly is ludicrous.

To even out the numbers at each school, the district will probably use a lottery and some students will have to go to a school not of their choice. Many parents are unhappy that their children may be forced to attend a school they believe doesn't meet their needs.

School officials already lost a measure of the public trust with their tactics and manipulation of information during their campaign to get a second high school approved. And last fall, district staff failed to let the School Board know how far behind construction of the school had fallen.

If Thunder Mountain programs are so problematic students don't want to attend them, the community needs to know now so there's enough time to react responsibly and effectively.

The public has already invested millions of dollars and countless hours into the new school. In return, the community deserves openness and honesty from the superintendent of schools and other district officials.

If the new high school is going to be a success when it opens, the district needs to be up-front about all the challenges it faces along the way.

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