School district pulls out of planning team with city

School Board says it will plan new high school on its own

Posted: Wednesday, May 22, 2002

The Juneau School Board on Tuesday withdrew in frustration from a joint city-schools team that was planning a new high school in the Mendenhall Valley and the renovation of Juneau-Douglas High School.

"The spirit is it hasn't been collaborative, so we'll just go our own way," schools Superintendent Gary Bader said today.

The School Board said it will follow state law, which gives it the authority to design school construction projects by itself and submit them to the Juneau Assembly for approval. School Board President Mary Becker said the board would oversee the design of the Valley high school.

The School Board's 6-0 vote, with member Alan Schorr absent, followed Monday's 5-4 vote by the Juneau Assembly to award a contract to Coogan Construction of Juneau to renovate JDHS.

The action contradicted a 6-4 vote Monday by the projects' planning team of city and school district officials not to award the contract, but to prepare to build a high school at Dimond Park first. School officials said it would be less disruptive to renovate JDHS after many of its students had been moved to a new school.

The Legislature last year authorized 70 percent reimbursement of $13 million in local bond debt for the JDHS project, triggering interest in renovating that school first. But this week lawmakers passed a bill that would reimburse local debt for the Valley high school at 60 percent, if state voters in November approve a $236 million bond package for construction in rural school districts and at the University of Alaska.

The city and school district signed a memorandum of understanding in February 2000 that created the project team to oversee the designs, evaluate funding options and, when funding is approved, oversee construction of the two projects.

School Board member Chuck Cohen said the city and school district gave up some of their authority to act independently when they created the new entity. School district officials saw it as a decision-making body, not an advisory panel to the Assembly.

"I take it personally as an insult and a slap in the face," Cohen said at Tuesday's board meeting, referring to the Assembly's action Monday. "I would like to treat the (cooperative) agreement as null and void."

But the Assembly didn't give up its authority to make financial decisions when it joined the project team, Assembly member Ken Koelsch, who favored the JDHS contract, said after the School Board meeting.

"I don't believe you can give away your responsibility," Koelsch said.

School Board member Stan Ridgeway said today the decision to award the contract wasn't financial, but one of planning and staging, which is the part of the project team's charge. Voters, when they approved bonds in 1999, made the decision to fund the projects, he said.

Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce said today the city charter reserves decisions about bids over a certain amount to the Assembly. She described the contract award as a "financial decision with planning implications," which the Assembly took testimony about and discussed.

The School Board, in the motion it approved Tuesday, said it would treat the Assembly's action as tantamount to city withdrawal from the project team. The board further said it reserved the right to take legal action against the city in awarding the renovation contract. And the board said it would use its authority under state law to plan current and future school construction projects.

Although Cohen said there's good reason to think the Assembly awarded the contract illegally, he said the board should accept the decision about the JDHS contract.

Pierce said it is unfortunate the cooperative agreement has broken down.

"It opens the potential for real stand-off situations," causing delays and greater expense, she said.

"It seemed to me that the process broke down a while ago," said School Board member Carolyn Spalding at the board meeting Tuesday. "There seemed to be some major philosophical difference between what many city and staff were voting for and what the school board were voting for."

The project team has had some split votes, largely along city-school lines, about whether to spend more money to design the Valley high school before the state agrees to reimburse part of the construction costs.

Ridgeway and Cohen said some city officials on the team didn't want a new high school. Some city officials have questioned its operating budget and its proposed size in light of stagnant or declining enrollments.

Pierce said she has never heard any team members say, privately or publicly, that they didn't want a new high school. Concerns about student numbers and the operating budget, which is tied to enrollments, were expressed openly and are legitimate, she said.

City officials also have alarmed school district officials by taking money from the Valley school's budget for the JDHS renovation.

Ridgeway said it was part of a strategy to force the school district to ask voters for more money from a geographically split community. Downtown residents would have less reason to fund the Valley high school once JDHS is fixed up, he said.

Pierce and other city officials have said the new high school will cost more than the $50 million amount in the 1999 bond measure and will have to go out for another vote anyway.

Eric Fry can be reached at efry@juneauempire.com.



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