New Valley high school: What's a voter to do?

A 'yes' vote means don't build new school; a 'no' vote means build it

Posted: Friday, May 21, 2004

On May 25 voters will decide once again whether they want to build a high school at Dimond Park.

Voters face a ballot measure, placed there by a citizens' initiative, that asks them whether they want the city to refrain from using any of the bonds approved in 1999 to build a new school.

A "yes" vote says in effect: Don't build the Dimond Park high school. A "no" vote says: Build the school now.

That's the simple version. The ballot measure actually conditions building the Dimond Park school on having an enrollment of at least 2,100, on having identified funds for an annual operating budget of nearly $1.7 million, and on being the size mentioned in the voters' information pamphlet for the 1999 bond election.

The initiative sponsors have said they want to hold the school district to its enrollment projections from 1999 for 2004.

But supporters of the Dimond Park school say JDHS is overcrowded now, with 1,575 students, and a new school is needed.

The school district can't possibly gain several hundred high school students between now and Dec. 31, when the state's opportunity for reimbursement expires. That's why the May 25 bond measure, if it passes, effectively kills the currently designed school at Dimond Park.

No easy answers

Voters looking for easy answers and clear facts are in the wrong election.

A voter might want a second school but not at this size and cost. Another voter might not think JDHS is overcrowded, but believe two smaller schools will be better for kids anyway.

One person might believe two smaller schools are better for kids, but doubt the district can afford to run two schools. Another person might think the planned school is too big, but figures it's the last chance to get state reimbursement for part of the construction cost.

"What we're talking about is being able to get the state to pay for 60 percent of the project," said city Finance Director Craig Duncan. "The city would pay 40 percent, get a school and get a $60 million project, which in the short term would add economically to the city and change the property values nearby."

But the "free" state money leads to costs down the road in running the school.

"What will break us is running the (Dimond Park) facility that was paid for with that state money," countered Clay Good, a JDHS teacher who helped sponsor the ballot measure.

Opponents of the school believe the district has underestimated the cost of running the school, especially as maintenance needs rise over time. They fear that staff and other programs will be cut to fund the new school.

The district's sample operating budget for the school, which can be found at www.jsd.k12.ak.us, is based partly on receiving more state money.

The state funds school districts by taking into account the economies of scale at each school. The enrollment at two smaller high schools will bring in more state money than the same number of students at one large high school.

But the new state funding would cover only about two-thirds of the needed money, by the district's own estimates. The district also is counting on receiving more city funds and on being able to find permanent savings by cutting some annual expenses.

Smaller vs. larger

When the district in the late 1990s first sought voter approval for a second high school, at a time of rising enrollment, the overriding issue was overcrowding.

As the years went by, the projected increase in enrollment didn't materialize, although proponents of a new school say JDHS is overcrowded and will be more so in the future. But the argument to some degree has shifted to saying two smaller schools are better academically and socially for students.

"I see kids get lost here," said JDHS student Megan Bush. "I've watched kids drop out. There's no community feel in this school."

A second high school building alone doesn't solve those problems, agreed Jeff Bush, co-chairman of Build It Now, the advocacy group that favors the Dimond Park high school.

"I claim that the (new) building opens the opportunity for the changes that are going to be needed," he said.

"Simply by opening a second school, you open opportunities for kids. You double the number of kids on the yearbook staff. You double the number of kids in student government. You increase the number of kids involved in athletics," Bush said.

"At the same time, you create an environment where kids can feel connected to the school community, where teachers get to know kids by name and will know most of the kids they encounter in the halls."

Juneau Assembly member Randy Wanamaker supports a second high school, partly because he believes two schools will give Natives a greater opportunity to participate in sports and other activities.

Having two schools will increase the number of starting positions on teams. Students don't want to join teams now if they're going to sit on the bench, Wanamaker said.

Opponents of a second high school doubt that the community can afford to run two full sports programs. Sports are mostly funded by donations.

And to some residents, JDHS is the one place where Juneau's children and the community come together. They don't want to lose that.

"Before we divide the community, which is what a second school will do, there has to be a very pronounced reason," said Ken Koelsch, a member of Juneau Students First, which opposes the Dimond Park high school. Koelsch is a former Juneau Assembly member and a retired longtime JDHS teacher.

"When you see high school graduations here, it's definitely a unity in the community," he said.

When the Dimond Park school opens, it's expected to have about 800 students, as would JDHS. High school teacher Good said those aren't small schools.

"I don't see where we're going to get a small school out of this deal. I see we're going to get two big schools," he said.

Good said the district has been focused on buildings, not students' needs.

"We need to ask ourselves what is it we're not providing to students well at JDHS and design a facility to meet those needs," he said.

In 1999, the district assumed that residents wanted the two schools to be equal in enrollment and to be "comprehensive" schools, although the Dimond Park school wouldn't include wood, metal or auto shops.

But as the school approached construction, some residents began to wonder whether it really would be possible, with no increase in teachers, to provide the same programs at two high schools. Other residents counter that it wouldn't be desirable to have two similar schools anyway.

Larger schools offer more variety in courses, Koelsch said.

Splitting the student body diminishes the number of students at each school who want to take advanced classes or courses in the arts, vocations and foreign languages, say opponents of the Dimond Park school.

"A lot of what we offer students is based on an ability to put enough students in a room to justify it financially," Good said. "And we will lose many of the opportunities because we won't be able to put enough students in the classroom to offer those classes."

District officials counter that schools smaller than JDHS nonetheless offer a diversity of courses. Students may be able to travel from one school to another at lunch to take afternoon courses that aren't offered at their school. Some faculty in music, for example, could be shared with the middle schools, said Superintendent Peggy Cowan.

JDHS health teacher Nancy Seamount supports the Dimond Park school as an opportunity to try something different in a smaller setting.

She agrees that the school's programs should have been planned first, so Juneau would see the school as an alternative based on research into what helps students learn.

But time is running out to be eligible for state reimbursement by Dec. 31, she said.

"The biggest deal is: This is it," Seamount said. "If we don't build it now, there's no time for any plan to happen before Dec. 31st."

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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