Empire editorial: Vote for school bonds

Posted: Sunday, May 25, 2003

Juneau voters will go to the polls for a special election on June 3 to consider two school bond propositions. Proposition 1 will determine whether the city should issue $12.6 million in bonds to pay for the remaining part of the planned high school at Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley.

Proposition 2 is a separate $12.5 million bond measure that would help pay for continuing the renovation of Juneau-Douglas High School and possibly other schools.

The bond measures are the final components of a long quest to adequately fund Juneau's long-term high school needs. The evolution of the two projects has followed a circuitous and complex path.

While other cities around the state have upgraded their high schools in recent years, Juneau's facilities have remained in need of modernization and expansion.

JDHS was built in the late 1950s is undergoing its third upgrade. The facility was built to hold 1,200 students but has 1,650 jammed into it. Retrofitting is expensive and problematic even under the best circumstances. Renovation costs have risen for a variety of reasons. However, the $12.5 million bond, which qualifies for state reimbursement, will allow the job currently underway to be completed.

Voters should know that Proposition 2 would not affect their property taxes. It simply transfers the equivalent of sales-tax-based and other CBJ funds already raised into a bond debt. The bond debt is eligible to be reimbursed by the state at 70 percent, which will have the effect of freeing up $5.6 million in funds to be used for the JDHS renovation and other school projects.

A number of important improvements included in the original JDHS design were eliminated due to cost limitations. Proposition 2 will restore some of those improvements by providing funding for improved traffic circulation and parking, a playing field that's been overdue for 50 years, equipment, classroom furniture, and completion of an exterior facelift and roof work.

Since voters approved $49.9 million in bonds for a Valley high school in 1999, it has taken three years to secure the state matching funds needed to move the construction phase of the project forward. A lot has changed in three years. The added $12.6 million provided by Proposition 1 will cover increased construction costs, expanded classroom capacity, an auxiliary gym and expanded food service.

Although there is some difference of opinion in the community on the scale and features of the final Valley school design, there is broad consensus that the two high schools should be similar in size with student populations of around 900 at each when the doors open in 2006.

With the increased scale provided by Proposition 1 both schools would have the capacity to absorb future growth in enrollment for a long time to come, which will save taxpayers money.

The final working design of the Valley school represents the effort of many dedicated people who have worked collaboratively over a period of seven years. Their work has produced a comprehensive, well-thought-out design for a school that will also host community events.

The Valley school will not be a palace. It will be a functional, attractive school that, when added to the upgraded JDHS facility, makes a powerful statement that Juneau has an eye to the future and cares about education.

A project team comprised of three Assembly members, 3 school district representatives and facilitated by city and school-district staff now guides the process. The group has made substantial progress over the past two months in fine-tuning the design and function of the new school.

Another team made up of professionals from outside of Juneau recently conducted a peer review. Their work produced 100 recommendations that include access improvements, construction cost efficiencies, a more cost-effective roof system, reconfiguring the two gymnasiums to reduce cost and increase seating capacity and a host of other improvements.

Passage of Proposition 1 will raise the capacity of the Valley school to 1,100, add 12 classrooms and expand a commercial-grade kitchen that will provide hot lunches for several schools. The Juneau school district is one of the few that doesn't provide a full hot lunch program.

The timing of the two bond proposals is fortuitous for Juneau, as bond rates are historically low and the two school projects qualify for the debt reimbursement program. The competition for these funds across the state will be intense and the funds are limited.

The combination of low interest rates and high reimbursement level by the state means taxpayers should see an assessment level at $89 per $100,000, 26 percent lower than estimated in 1999, even with the added $12.6 million bond in Proposition 1. Proposition 2 won't cost the taxpayers anything.

On June 3, voters will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to complete a vision for Juneau's future high school needs while minimizing the impact on property taxes. Beyond the brick and mortar improvements, the community and school district must invest an equal amount of energy in supporting its teachers and creating programs for the future.

Don Smith



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