School bonds not likely this year

Posted: Sunday, March 02, 2008

The city won't likely be asking voters to approve any big-ticket school projects this year, according to Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho.

He said a worsening economic outlook and a "soured" attitude among voters because of the city's new $60 million high school, which some in the community have said was unnecessary, made it politically unfeasible to put forward a large school bond project in the fall.

"Absent a compelling reason, we will not see a major bond issue related to schools on the ballot," Botelho said. He and members of the city Assembly told school officials recently at an informal work session that voters had little appetite for large-scale capital school projects.

In addition to the new high school, last year voters approved about $22.4 million for renovating two elementary schools.

The Juneau School District has eight renovations or other capital projects it would like the city's voters to approve over the next six years that have a total price tag of about $57 million. Under current law, the state reimburses up to 70 percent of state-approved capital school projects. That law is set to expire later this year.

If that happens, or if the state lowers how much it's willing to reimburse cities for school bonds, Juneau School District Superintendent Peggy Cowan said the city would stand to lose millions of dollars if voters didn't approve the projects before the current law expires.

The district's top three priority projects include about $37 million for renovations at two elementary schools and the alternative high school, all of which Cowan said were built at least 40 years ago and require some major infrastructure upgrades.

"We definitely need the renovations," Cowan said, adding that the sooner voters approve the projects, the more time the city would have to plan how to proceed with them.

Botelho said the huge potential savings available if the state were to start withholding funds could be a compelling enough reason to ask voters to approve some of the district's requested projects, but said he's doubtful the state would take that action.

The House Finance Committee recently submitted a bill to extend the school bond reimbursement law at its current levels for another two years and its chairman, Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, said he was hopeful it would pass.

"I could be wrong, but I see this being extended another two years without a whole bunch of hoopla," Meyer said.

Botelho added that Juneau's voters had been very supportive of financing school projects in the past. But having a project voted down would be disastrous for future bond efforts, he said, because voters resent having to vote on what they see as the same proposition more than once.

Cowan said she appreciated the past support for school capital projects from the community. She added that the Juneau School Board, not the district, would have to make the decision whether to ask the city to proceed with capital school projects this year.

School board members are still discussing the issue, and will make their decision in April, Cowan said.

School board member Sean O'Brien said he felt that once the public understood how critical some of the schools' needs were they would be more likely to approve some of the district's requests.

O'Brien said he'd like to see the issue on a ballot and let the public decide, adding that he was concerned that the mayor and members of the Assembly could be falsely assuming what the public wants.

School Board Member Destiny Sargeant said she hasn't made up her mind yet whether to push for having capital projects on the ballot this year. She said she understood that some voters' finances are tight right now. But she said the district's capital needs were great and it would be prudent to "take a bite at a time" and pass a few projects each year, rather than let them build up.

But School Board Member Margo Waring said it would be a good idea to take a year off from school bond projects, and let some of the ill-will that she said had built up in the community toward the school district die down.

• Contact reporterAlan Suderman at 523-2268 or alan.suderman@juneauempire.com



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