High school design funding continues

Project may be scaled down

Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2002

The project team guiding the development of a new high school in the Mendenhall Valley voted Wednesday to continue funding design of the project, despite concerns from some members regarding the status of state funding and rising costs.

On a 7-5 vote, the team - composed of school district and city representatives - also chose to pursue planning for a design that is slightly scaled-down from initial plans.

Supporters who favor continuing to spend $400,000 toward the schematic design, which is about 20 percent complete, said it is necessary to maintain the project's momentum and to follow the directive of voters who supported the project in 1999 and again last fall.

"This is a very painful issue for me," Superintendent Gary Bader said. "It goes against my fiscally conservative nature to spend money, but it's something that we have not only been allowed to do, but directed to do by voters."

School Board Vice President Chuck Cohen said a completed schematic design would provide the committee, and the public, with a better sense of the look and cost of the project.

City Manager Dave Palmer said existing plans have provided a good sense of what the school will be, and that more detailed work should wait until there is assurance of state funding.

"I feel like we're designing to build something we have no reasonable expectation of seeing funded," Palmer said. "It seems to me a good time to stop with the conceptual work until we've got money."

Sen. Kim Elton, a Juneau Democrat, said the funding outlook for the new high school "looks bleak" for this session.

The new high school is 38th on a school construction priority list submitted to the Legislature by the state Department of Education. Although the Legislature is not obligated to follow that list, Elton said it did so last year. He said that given the legislative-session move referendum on November's ballot, it is unlikely that the Juneau legislative delegation will seek to move up the new high school project's ranking.

"We are in a rather delicate position," Elton said. "Rural Alaska has been one of the strongest supporters of Juneau as the capital. We don't want to appear to be jumping over their projects ... and incur bad will."

Elton also noted that Juneau has enjoyed success by following the list in recent years - including funding for renovations to Juneau-Douglas High School - and it would be "awkward" to question it now.

At Wednesday's project team meeting, Assembly member Ken Koelsch suggested holding off on planning until the Legislature move vote.

"(Design funds are) real money, coming from the citizens of Juneau," he said. "We have an obligation to protect that."

Assembly member Marc Wheeler said concerns over state funding and the capital move should not be allowed to bring a complete halt to the project.

"It's very easy to stop right now, but I think it's our job to have a vision for the community ... and keep the dream alive, moving forward," Wheeler said.

The scaled-down version the team opted to plan for - "Option B" - cuts about 20,000 square feet from initial plans and has a capacity about 1,080 students, versus about 1,200 originally.

Option B would eliminate four classrooms, a science lab, a computer lab and a fitness room, and minor reductions would occur in "core" areas, including the commons, auditorium and library. Option B, like the original plans, would be expandable to a 1,500-student capacity.

The projected cost of Option B, if construction were to begin in 2003, would be $39.7 million, according to project architects Minch Ritter Voelckers, which would rise to $42,020,000 in 2005. However, only about $36 million in construction funds would be available from the $49.9 million figure approved by voters in 1999.

Among the options discussed Wednesday for dealing with cost overruns were holding another referendum or "shelling out" spaces in the new building, such as the auditorium, and completing them when funding becomes available.

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