Voters: Don't build the school

With 1,200 votes left to count, the antis have the edge

Posted: Wednesday, May 26, 2004

A slim majority of voters on Tuesday told the city not to build a high school at Dimond Park that has been planned since 1999.

By a 51.33 percent to 48.66 percent margin, voters passed an initiative that directs the city not to award bids to build the school with proceeds from 1999 bonds until certain conditions of larger enrollment, operating budget and school size are met.

"I am extremely disappointed," said Juneau School Board President Mary Becker, "and I believe the whole board and administration and the entire school district will be very disappointed in this election.

"We put a lot of years into planning for the future and our high school needs. The public has spoken and we'll have to be planning for the future in another way."

The votes of about 31 percent of registered voters were counted Tuesday. They include 6,937 residents who voted in person Tuesday and 350 absentee ballots received through May 21.

The vote as of Tuesday was 3,740 in favor of the initiative and 3,546 against it.

Still to be counted are 761 questioned ballots and roughly 500 absentee ballots, said City Clerk Laurie Sica.

Those ballots will be counted by Friday, and will raise voter turnout to about 35 percent, which is high for a special election.

"I think we have a really excellent voter turnout," Sica said.

The election is scheduled to be certified Tuesday, when the Canvass Board will review the precinct results and any absentee ballots received since Friday.

Voters first approved the Dimond Park school in 1999, along with renovations to Juneau-Douglas High School, and they added funds for both projects in 2003. The margins were 55-45.

The 1,080-student Dimond Park school had a budget of about $63 million. The state was expected to reimburse 60 percent of the cost.

Dave Palmer, one of the initiative sponsors, said the election results offer "a chance to fix it. It's not like we're done."

"The burden falls to the school district and the Assembly to sit down and address the needs of the school district in light of the realities today - they don't have the enrollment and they don't have the money they projected," Palmer said.

Any effort to build a differently designed school, or to renovate the Marie Drake building next to JDHS, would require new bonds. The project would face a deadline of Dec. 31 to get state approval for reimbursement.

"I certainly hope the Juneau community realizes it's going to be faced with a large bill when it decides to build a school," said Bill Peters, co-chairman of Build It Now, the group that advocated for the Dimond Park high school.

Brian Goettler was standing alongside Riverside Drive in the Mendenhall Valley early in the morning, holding up a sign that read: "Vote No. Build It Now."

Goettler said he didn't want the city to miss out on the state money.

"Everybody's got their opinion, but to me it's a no-brainer," he said as many passing motorists waved or gave the thumbs-up. "Everyone talks about the student-teacher ratio, but you can't bring that down unless you've got someplace to put them."

Vicki Houtary, who voted at the Safeway store in the Mendenhall Valley, opposed the initiative because she was concerned about overcrowding at JDHS and its effects on the productivity of students and staff.

"I think no matter what we do, I don't think there's any way to get the current high school to meet the needs of our students," she said.

Opponents of the Dimond Park high school argued that it would be expensive to run, and staffing and other programs would suffer.

They said the school district wouldn't be able to offer the same number of courses or after-school activities at each school as it now does at JDHS.

Some opponents thought that having two high schools would be divisive. Some residents didn't want to split the talent pool for championship-quality sports teams.

Laurie Berg, who voted an absentee ballot for the initiative, said the most important deciding factor for her was that the new school didn't put money into the classroom. The project's sample operating budget didn't include new teacher positions. Many of the new employees would have been custodians, she pointed out.

The district's operating budget is based on the number of students and that is declining, Berg said.

"I just don't see how it can work right now. We don't have the students to generate the money," she said.

Other voters were willing to build the school and work out the details later.

College students Josh Finley and Byron Wild, two members of the JDHS Class of 2003, voted downtown for the new school.

"I just think that we've done so much to get to this situation where we can have this school built," Wild said. "I definitely feel we need this school."

"I know that a lot of details need to be worked out," Finley said. "But if we have another building, at least we'll have the space we need."

Dick Monkman, voting downtown, said JDHS is overcrowded and smaller schools are better for students.

Downtown voter Gene Dau said he didn't want to lose state reimbursement for the school.

"I'm looking at the future. If Juneau grows, we're going to need the new school," Dau said.

 Special election results by precinct

Here are the precinct totals for votes cast in person Tuesday and by

absentee ballot through May 21. The overall results were 3,740 voting yes

(51%), and 3,546 voting no. The percentages are rounded off. A yes vote blocked construction of the planned high school at Dimond Park

using proceeds from bonds approved in 1999.

Douglas: 304 Y (60%), 206 N

Juneau 1: 95 Y (59%), 67 N

Juneau 2: 181 Y (56%), 143 N

Juneau 3: 254 Y (52%), 235 N

Juneau 4: 211 Y (53%), 185 N

Juneau Airport: 196 Y (54%), 169 N

Lemon Creek: 150 Y (58%), 107 N

North Douglas: 247 Y (55%), 204 N

Salmon Creek: 159 Y (54%), 136 N

Switzer Creek: 63 Y (44%), 79 N

Mend. Valley 1: 249 Y (45%), 297 N

Mend. Valley 2: 299 Y (44%), 377 N

Mend. Valley 3: 287 Y (46%), 331 N

Mend. Valley 4: 292 Y (45%), 352 N

Auke/Fritz: 285 Y (51%), 275 N

Lynn Canal: 270 Y (54%), 231 N

Absentee through May 21: 198 Y (56%), 152 N

Still to be counted are 761 questioned ballots and an estimated 500 absentee

ballots. Those ballots are expected to be reviewed and counted by Friday

evening. The election could be certified on the following Tuesday.

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