The Juneau Assembly on Monday awarded a bid to renovate Juneau-Douglas High School over the wishes of some members of a joint school district-city planning team that favored building a new Mendenhall Valley high school first.
In a 5-4 vote, the Assembly approved a $15 million construction contract to low bidder Coogan Construction of Juneau for the JDHS renovation. The bid was $2.8 million higher than the original construction budget. Work should begin next month.
The entire JDHS project cost is $19.3 million, including construction, design and demolition last year of the former state ferry building next to the high school, according to the city. To cover the funding shortfall, the city will use $2.5 million from the "rainy day" reserves to be repaid with temporary sales tax designated for school projects and $300,000 in bond interest.
The vote went against the wishes of the majority of a project planning team made up of three Assembly members, three Juneau School Board members and city and school staff. The planning team voted 6-4 on Monday afternoon not to award the JDHS contract and concentrate on building a new high school at Dimond Park.
Assembly discussion Monday focused on the role of the project planning team, the message from voters in three separate elections involving school bonds, and what money might or might not be coming from the state.
Assembly members Ken Koelsch, Dale Anderson, Don Etheridge, Jeannie Johnson and Mayor Sally Smith voted in favor of the bid award. Frankie Pillifant, Jim Powell, Randy Wanamaker and Marc Wheeler voted no. The same vote tally was recorded on reconsideration.
Wheeler objected to voting against the project team's recommendation. Funding the renovation project would reduce the budget for the new high school and wouldn't solve overcrowding at JDHS, he said.
"If we award this, we're spending close to $20 million and we're not adding a single classroom," he said. "We're not solving the fundamental problem."
Wheeler said the city has an opportunity to be reimbursed for unexpected costs at JDHS through a new school construction and maintenance funding plan approved by the state Legislature last weekend.
Etheridge said he was afraid statewide voters might not approve this fall a $236 million school construction bond measure for rural schools and the state university. The urban-school bonds' debt-reimbursement program is linked to its passage. Putting JDHS out to bid again could make the project more expensive, he added.
"If we don't approve it, we're still looking at the renovation of the high school many years down the road," he said. "If voters don't approve (the school bonds) this fall, we're back behind the eight ball not doing anything."
Etheridge also asked the Assembly to uphold the bid process. Contractors spend hundreds of dollars and hours to put bids together, he said.
Smith said she was concerned about "gambling" on a November election and losing time to improve JDHS.
"Our kids are crowded and I'm not saying that the renovation is going to solve the overcrowding, but it's going to bring better chemistry labs, better ocean science labs, improved classroom space and lockers," she said. "I would be reluctant to have a group of kids move into a new high school and a group of kids have nothing."
Pillifant said she didn't think the JDHS renovation project serves students as well as it could. The project doesn't provide additional classroom space, she said.
Schools Superintendent Gary Bader told the Assembly building a new Valley high school first would be less disruptive to students and the educational process. Adding $2.8 million to the JDHS renovation would deplete the city's "rainy day" reserves or reduce funding for the new high school, he said.
At the project team meeting midday Monday, School Board member Chuck Cohen said he would like to see construction of the new high school begin as soon as next year.
"It makes a lot more sense to build a new school in the Valley first, get it built for 1,000 students and then figure out what to do with JDHS," Cohen said. "It may well be that we want to renovate it as a school for 1,000, not 1,200."
Cohen urged the project team also to consider inflation.
"We are now potentially talking about starting construction in 2003. That saves two years of inflation," he said.
Team members also disagreed about the legal status of the team, which was formed in February 2000 with a memorandum of understanding between city and school officials.
City Manager Dave Palmer characterized the project team's Monday vote as a recommendation to the Assembly, but Cohen said it was a legally binding instruction.
"I think the Assembly contract has bound itself to this group," Cohen said, noting that a breach in that contract would be subject to "legal ramifications."
Assembly member Anderson said the Assembly has the authority to do what it deems best when it comes to appropriating money for construction projects.
Bader today said the Assembly's decision to go forward first with the JDHS renovation was "less disappointing than the fact that we had a working arrangement with the Assembly and they abandoned it."
He said, "I never viewed this project team as an advisory body. I viewed it as a governance body. ... Then last night that all went away."
Empire staff writers Tim Inklebarger and Eric Fry contributed to this report.
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