Chosen: Design for new school

Work halted until funds OK'd

Posted: Friday, April 13, 2001

Local officials have decided on a conceptual design for the planned high school at Dimond Park. But they won't put more money into refining the design until the Legislature guarantees some state construction money.

Instead, a committee of city and school officials on Thursday authorized further design work for the planned renovation of Juneau-Douglas High School, where partial state funding seems more likely.

Juneau's lobbyist, Clark Gruening, said it's hard to see a large reauthorization of bond debt reimbursement for new school construction this session.

But Gruening said he thinks the Legislature will approve some school major maintenance projects, using a state list that ranks JDHS renovations fairly high.


"I think they will do some, and I think we will be included. We have 28 days to go, and anything could change," he said.

The planning and design of the two projects have cost about $1 million so far, said city architect Catherine Fritz.

Voters in October 1999 approved a bond package of $50 million to build a 1,200-student high school at Dimond Park and $13 million to renovate JDHS to suit 1,200 students. Its 1,600 students crowd the halls and commons and take some classes in the Marie Drake building next door.

Voters made construction contingent on partial state reimbursement of the bond debt. But they allowed up to $2 million to be spent toward designing the projects.

This is the second legislative session since the bonds passed, but local officials said it's not time to rethink the projects.

"It will be incredibly disappointing if we don't get funding for the new high school" this session, said Mayor Sally Smith. "But that doesn't mean we'll give up on our attempts."

But as the years pass, the original budgets are being eroded by inflation, planners said.

"The more time goes by, inflation will take its toll," Fritz said. "We've been trying to do more with less since the first ballot issue."

The proposed school's space was budgeted at $192 a square foot, but the latest rule of thumb is $202, said architect Paul Voelckers of the Juneau firm Minch Ritter Voelckers Architects, which is designing the two projects with the national firm Fanning and Howey Associates.

Juneau Assembly member John MacKinnon said the bonds should have had a sunset date. If they haven't been sold within five years of the 1999 vote, the Assembly should ask voters to reauthorize them, he said in an interview.

Enrollments are down in the elementary grades and could continue to decline. State reimbursement would trigger the bond sales at a time when the city perhaps couldn't afford its share and wouldn't need all of the new space, he said.

"Things do change. Opinions do change. And positions change," MacKinnon said.

A big question for planners is whether to rebuild JDHS if the Legislature this year gives funds for that but not for a new high school.

"We need to get both appropriations to proceed forward with either one of the projects," schools Superintendent Gary Bader told the planning committee Thursday.

Planners intended to renovate JDHS after building the new school, which would have housed many of the students. It's much more difficult to rebuild JDHS while it's overflowing with students, architect Voelckers said. Construction is likely to take two summers and a school year at least, he said.

"I can promise you this is going to be a hair-raising project," Voelckers told the committee Thursday. "It's going to be a very difficult project for everybody."

Another factor is that a renovated JDHS would have fewer classrooms. It may not be easy to find space for more high school classes in the Marie Drake building, which is also used by Harborview Elementary, city architect Fritz said.

It's also a question of fairness. Voters authorized a valley school and a renovated downtown school as a package, said Juneau School Board member Chuck Cohen in an interview.

"Valley residents could feel short-changed," he said.

The state might reimburse about $9 million of the $13 million in local bonds for JDHS. Voters also decided last October to add about $4 million from sales tax proceeds to the project.

JDHS would get a larger, brighter commons, a kitchen, improvements to the auditorium, some mechanical and electrical upgrades, renovated science labs, and a major sprucing up inside and out.

The design approved Thursday for the new high school shows two two-story classroom wings stretching off a semi-circular central portion that houses administrative offices, art rooms and a two-story-high commons area. An auditorium, performing arts classrooms, a gym and locker rooms sit in a large block off the semi-circular space.

The school would be placed near Riverside Drive, with space next to it for a future city recreation center. Two playing fields, one with a track, would sit between the school and the Mendenhall River.

There would be parking for about 900 vehicles, including existing spaces for Riverbend Elementary School. The main access would be at the intersection of Riverside and Riverwood drives, which would have a traffic light.

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