Juneau's roller coaster quest for state money to fund a $13 million high school renovation project ended at a high point Tuesday after Democrats and Republicans brokered a last-minute deal on school funding.
The compromise package includes the $9 million sought by civic leaders to spruce up Juneau-Douglas High School and $2.5 million to finish a new classroom wing at the University of Alaska Southeast.
Senate Republicans on Sunday deleted funding for JDHS but restored it late Tuesday under pressure from the minority. After hearing the news, Juneau Democrat Beth Kerttula jumped up and down in a hallway squealing "We got the high school. We got the high school."
But the project faces new hurdles. The work on JDHS was approved by Juneau voters in 1999, along with plans for a new high school in the Mendenhall Valley. Both projects were contingent on some state reimbursement of the bond debt.
The problem is voters approved a bonds issue only if the state kicked in funding for both projects, and lawmakers have not appropriated money for the new high school.
In a recent legal opinion, city attorney John Corso wrote that the ballot language makes it clear the bonds were presented to and authorized by voters for a single purpose - a "package deal" - consisting of two projects. The city cannot use bond funds on JDHS renovation only or on a valley high school only, he said.
"In order to expend the funds on JDHS only, it will be necessary to secure a new form of voter approval," Corso wrote. "Authorization for an entirely new bond would of course suffice, but it would also be possible to rely on the bond authority previously granted and limit the ballot question to approval of a new purpose for the same bonds."
The October municipal ballot probably will include a measure asking voter approval to use the bonds for only the JDHS project, said Juneau School District Superintendent Gary Bader, who says the hitch is not a setback at all.
"I'm assuming voter approval, but I have no reason to doubt voters would want this when 70 percent of the cost is paid by the state," Bader said.
Juneau Democrat Sen. Kim Elton saw it as a bump in the road.
"It's going to be a pretty simple matter because we're not authorizing new debt - we've already authorized that debt," Elton said. "It's just a matter of technically changing language."
If voters rejected the new language, Juneau would not immediately lose the state money because it's authorized until 2004, said Elton, noting "if in fact there is a problem, there's a lot of time to fix it."
If voters approved the ballot measure, the city would put the project out for bid probably in January 2002, and contractors would start work that summer, said the school district Facilities Manager Joe Mueller, adding the renovation would take about two years.
That raises another problem. The city had hoped to build the new school first and send displaced JDHS students there during the renovation. However, the renovation money came first. Although the nearby Marie Drake building probably could accommodate some of the high school's roughly 1,650 pupils, the students could stay in JDHS while contractors are doing the work, Bader said, noting heavy construction would take place during summer break.
"This has been done in other communities," he said. "Sitka remodeled their high school and Ketchikan as well - major renovations - even perhaps more extensive than what we're contemplating without having an alternate place to put students."
A team of mostly school and city officials is refining a list of projects for the renovation, said Bader, adding the work likely will include new flooring, windows and lockers plus a host of other improvements to the interior and exterior.
Kathy Dye can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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