My Turn: Build school, fund education

Posted: Wednesday, March 17, 2004

I am the mother of three students currently enrolled in the Juneau School District and I volunteer at least three times per week at Mendenhall River Community School and Floyd Dryden Middle School. My children are due to graduate from high school in 2010, 2012 and 2014. I am writing for two reasons: To support the high school in the valley and to encourage citizens of our town to lobby the Legislature to provide more money to fund public schools throughout the state.

My reasons for the new high school are the same ones reflected in numerous letters to the editor and those who testified at the Feb. 9 Assembly meeting. Just as super-sized portions at our local fast food restaurants are not good for our girth, super-sized schools do not create a positive learning environment for the majority of youth in our town, and particularly for minority, at-risk and learning-challenged students.

I have volunteered in our school district for the past seven years and if there is one common thread I've noticed about youth it is that they crave and need connectedness. They are afraid of being a nobody and want a chance to be a somebody. By having two smaller population high schools we'll diminish the unacceptable risk of a mega-school populated by too many "nobodies" (and a drop out rate of more than 30 percent) and replace it with the opportunity for two smaller schools full of "somebodies." I have also observed during my years in the classroom that the greatest detractor from learning in our public schools is behavior problems. Adding more and more students to a facility escalates negative behaviors.

I disagree with individuals in our community who believe we cannot afford a new $63 million high school. We are not being asked to pay $63 million for this facility. We are being asked to pay 40 percent of that figure, or roughly $25 million. Anyone who has built or bought a home in Juneau can realize the obvious real estate value in this window of opportunity (the stipulation of construction to begin before Dec. 2004) presented to us.

JDHS first opened its doors 10 years after the close of WWII. It may have received a recent facelift, but next year it will be a 50-year-old structure. If we pass by this 60-percent reimbursement by the state offered at this time, we are simply delaying a project that will cost more in the future with no guarantees of financial help from the state at that time.

Instead of cursing the darkness about the lack of education funding I encourage the citizens of Juneau to light a candle and contact their legislators demanding that our state increase the current student funding formula and then to establish a long-term education funding plan which inflation-proofs the formula and creates an education endowment.

Citizen groups are forming for this specific purpose throughout the state. In Juneau, Alaska Kids Count (Mary Hakala, contact person) is dedicated to this purpose. Their web site, which has updates on all the education bills this session is:

Take 10 or 15 minutes out of your day to e-mail or phone our legislators to let them know how important the education of Alaska's children is to you. The legislature's website is: E-mail addresses, phone numbers and committee assignments are available on this site. A public opinion message of up to 50 words can be called in at 465-5440. The person will take down your message and it will go to all of Alaska's elected officials or to just the officials you want to target with your message.

Please vote yes on going forward with the construction of the valley high school this spring. Be proactive in the efforts to increase spending on education in our state. It can and will happen this legislative session. Gov. Murkowski stated in a recent article in the Empire that he would not veto an education increase this year. Let's build the new high school in the valley and use our collective voice to empower our legislators to increase funding for Alaska school children throughout our great state.

• Joan Gianotti is Mendenhall River Community School representative for the Juneau School District Special Education Parent Advisory Committee and a school volunteer.

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