Future student count key to school debate

Disagreement continues on whether the high school is overcrowded now

Posted: Wednesday, May 19, 2004

For all the claims and counterclaims about the citizens' initiative on the May 25 ballot, for all the bewildering details and contrary statistics, it really comes down to this for each voter: Do we need a second high school?

Voters will decide whether to ask the city to refrain from building a high school using bonds authorized for that purpose in 1999.

Questions about enrollment and capacity at Juneau-Douglas High School are driving the debate. Is it overcrowded now? How many high school students will there be in the future?

"I think it's definitely the heart of it," said Ken Koelsch, a former Juneau Assembly member and a retired JDHS teacher who opposes a second high school.

"The only reason we went the direction we went (in the late 1990s with plans for a second school) was we were told there was overcrowding and it would continue," he said.

"The issue," said Bill Peters, who supports the second high school, "is smaller schools are better for the kids, and splitting the population at JDHS is the right thing to do."

But he agreed: The driving factor for a second high school is overcrowding at JDHS.

Enrollment varies during the school year. Some seniors complete their credits in the first semester and leave. Some students drop out.

The state uses the average daily enrollment of each school in October to decide state funding. It's also the figure the state uses to decide whether a school is over its capacity and how much new space is needed in the near future, if construction is being considered.

Last October, JDHS enrolled 1,578 students on average, according to the Juneau School District. At any given time, 20 to 40 of those students aren't on campus because they're in programs for students with special needs or behavior problems, or they're correspondence students.

Yaakoosge Daakahidi, the alternative high school located in rented space on 12th Street, enrolled 92 students in October. That figure is separate from the 1,578 number.

The district also is responsible for educating students who are incarcerated in the state's juvenile jail for Southeast, the Johnson Youth Center in Juneau. There were 18 students in the jail in October, on average. That figure also is separate from the 1,578 number.

That explains why the number of public high school students in Juneau is greater than the number of students at JDHS. In judging whether a school feels overcrowded, you have to consider the students actually on campus.

Opponents of the Dimond Park high school also want the public to consider the absentee rate when judging whether the school is overcrowded. But school district officials point out that it has to supply a seat for every student who enrolls, regardless of attendance.

In judging the need for future high school space, it's fair to combine JDHS and Yaakoos enrollments because the alternative program might be housed at a regular high school, said Jeff Bush, co-chairman of Build It Now, a group advocating for the Dimond Park high school. The group has cited the combined figure when telling citizens how overcrowded JDHS is.

The question of capacity doesn't have a short answer, either. The state uses a formula to determine the capacity of a school. For high schools, it's 165 square feet per student. JDHS has an official capacity of 1,151 students.

Only a few years ago, its capacity was 1,440. But the school district, with the city's and state's consent, removed the auditorium from the official inventory of school space. Changes in the state's formula for calculating capacity, which added more space per student, also reduced JDHS's official capacity.

The district's intent was to maximize state reimbursement for building a new high school. If it could say JDHS was overcrowded by a greater degree, it could show need for a large new school.

It's not uncommon for districts to remove auditoriums or swimming pools from their inventory when they want to show the need for a new school, said Tim Mearig, an architect with the state Department of Education.

But to opponents of a new school in Juneau, it seems unfair not to count the auditorium as part of the school's capacity.

The school district also uses much of the Marie Drake building, a former middle school next to JDHS, for high school classes. Opponents of a second school concede that JDHS would be overcrowded if it didn't use Marie Drake, but they say it's only fair to count that space as part of JDHS.

With 1,550 students in a building with a capacity for 1,150, JDHS would be overcrowded "except you have 500 (students) educated every day in Marie Drake," Koelsch said. "So you either are going to say Marie Drake doesn't exist, or you use Marie Drake as part of the high school complex."

The two buildings combined into one school would have space for 1,593 students, Mearig said. That's about the current JDHS enrollment.

The problem with counting Marie Drake is that the school district has said it wants to use the building for other purposes in the future, including perhaps as a middle school.

Floyd Dryden Middle School is at 150 percent of its capacity, and Dzantik'i Heeni is slightly over its capacity, said Superintendent Peggy Cowan. Both schools had about 675 students in October.

The district doesn't have firm plans for the Marie Drake building, but has considered using it as a stand-alone small middle school, or to hold some districtwide programs and administrative offices, she said.

"Marie Drake is not part of the high school," said Peters, co-chairman of Build It Now.

"The high school capacity is that which the high school can handle. Fortunately, Marie Drake is there and has allowed us to compensate for the overcrowding. But Marie Drake is needed for the middle schools," he said.

And committing Marie Drake to the high school means cramming more middle school students into those schools or using portable classrooms, said Bush, co-chairman of Build It Now.

Other ways to reduce the enrollment at JDHS would be to build a small high school or reconfigure Juneau's schools to place sixth-graders in elementary schools and ninth-graders in junior high schools, said Clay Good, a JDHS teacher and one of the ballot measure's sponsors.

Another big piece in the enrollment and capacity equation is the projection of future enrollment.

The school district concedes that its projection, in 1999, of strongly rising enrollments was wrong. But proponents of a second high school say today that Juneau's population will grow slowly, helped by the anticipated opening of the Kensington Mine.

"I think the key to remember is the McDowell Group study demonstrates the Juneau population will grow," Peters said.

He was referring to a population forecast released in December 2003 as part of a study of building a second bridge across Gastineau Channel. The McDowell Group is a research firm in Juneau.

The study shows that the growth in Juneau's population has slowed from an average annual rate of about 2.4 percent over the previous 30 years to 0.8 percent in the previous five years. The birth rate has declined from about 20 births per thousand residents in the 1980s to about 13 births per thousand in 1999.

The study cited a state Department of Labor forecast that Juneau's population, now at about 31,500, would be between 33,000 residents and 37,000 residents in 2018.

By 2035, Juneau could have anywhere from 37,500 residents to 50,500 residents, the state projected.

David Reaume, an economist in Washington state who used to be a Juneau School Board member, projects enrollment for the Juneau School District so it can prepare two-year budgets.

His report in November 2003 projected an increase of anywhere from eight to 50 high school students over the next two school years. But he also projected a decline in the number of school-age children in Juneau over the next five years, the period he studied.

A "bubble" of an unusually high number of births has been working its way through the schools. The big classes of kids are now in middle school. When that bubble passes, unless there's a major change in the economy that brings new workers, there will be fewer students at JDHS in the near future, he said.

When the state Department of Education is figuring out how much of a school's construction cost is eligible for partial state reimbursement, it projects enrollments to five years after a new school's opening.

The state is willing to reimburse 70 percent of the cost of a school that fills that need. Otherwise, under current law, it reimburses 60 percent of whatever a school district builds.

The state Department of Education projected there will be about 2,000 public high school students in Juneau in 2011, five years after the Dimond Park school would open in fall of 2006. That's about 300 more than now.

With JDHS serving its capacity of 1,150 students, the district needed space for 850 students, the state projected.

Because the Dimond Park school is suited for 1,080 students, the state will reimburse 60 percent of the cost.

Finally, voters have to decide how much empty space is reasonable to build now. Combined, there will be empty space for 630 more students in the two high schools in 2006.

"We want to build a school that will sustain future growth," Peters said.

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