Now what? Voters' message remains unclear

Mayor calls for the Assembly, School Board to meet next Wednesday to sort things out

Posted: Thursday, May 27, 2004

Tim Spengler, who voted for the Dimond Park high school Tuesday, said he didn't know many people who were dogmatically for or against the school.

"I know a lot of people who were scratching their heads up to the last minute," he said Wednesday.

Now it's the turn of Juneau School District and city officials to scratch their heads and figure out what the election meant and what to do next.

Mayor Bruce Botelho has called a joint meeting of the Juneau Assembly and the Juneau School Board for 7:30 a.m. next Wednesday in the Assembly chambers, "as an opportunity for us to begin sorting out where we go from here," he said.

A narrow majority of voters, 51.3 percent, approved a citizens' initiative that effectively blocks use of 1999 bonds to build a high school. A 1,080-student school had been designed for Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley.

About 1,200 questioned and absentee ballots will be counted this week. But even supporters of the Dimond Park school said it will be hard to make up the current 194-vote margin of victory.

The vote Tuesday canceled two previous votes in favor of the school, threw out five years of planning and design work that cost $4.85 million, forfeited about $56 million in state funds (60 percent reimbursement of bond principal and interest) and left a lot of unanswered questions.

"From my perspective, this vote doesn't tell the School Board to do any type of plan unless there are 2,100 students," said School Board President Mary Becker on election night.

She was alluding to the initiative's wording, which blocked spending of bonds approved in 1999 until there are 2,100 students at Juneau-Douglas High School, among other conditions.

Considering the closeness of the election and that opponents of the Dimond Park school had varied reasons for their votes, it's going to be hard to draw any conclusions about what voters do want, observers said.

"I think it is difficult for us to discern what all this means," Botelho said. "It doesn't answer the question of whether another (school) configuration would satisfy voters. There are a lot of different reasons why voters might have supported the proposition."

Decision-makers face a Dec. 31 deadline to receive approval from the state Department of Education if Juneau wants partial state reimbursement for any school renovation or construction project. Any project also must be approved by local voters.

The city and voters must decide what to do with $18.15 million in bonds that were sold for the school and now won't be used for that purpose. They can be spent on school improvement projects that have been approved but not funded yet.

The School Board and city also must decide if they want to put together a ballot measure for the fall or winter to renovate the Marie Drake building that is used by JDHS as an annex, or build some other high school, or take no action.

"I think the direction from voters is for the various factions to make peace for the sake of students," said Clay Good, a JDHS teacher who helped sponsor the initiative. "Go back to the drawing board, roll up our sleeves and get to work; determine what students really need without a predetermined outcome; carefully analyze program impacts; use what resources we already have more efficiently; provide copious, conservative information so that voters can make good, informed decisions."

Before anyone does that, the factions will have to overcome any bitterness the election has left.

The initiative came just as the project was preparing to go out to bid. It took up time and effort as the school district also was negotiating with three unions, preparing a two-year budget with severe cuts, and dealing with racial incidents at JDHS.

"I think there probably is going to be some bitterness," said Jeff Bush, a former Juneau School Board member who was co-chairman of Build It Now, the advocacy group that favored the Dimond Park school.

Jeannie Johnson, a Juneau Assembly member who serves on the planning team for the Dimond Park high school, said she hopes there won't be bitterness, "but I suppose there probably will be. It's a hard blow. It's just a tough thing right now to see."

Bush said that many leadership and parent organizations supported the Dimond Park school.

"Those are the people who are active in education issues," he said. "To ask them to now change gears and come up with a different plan is very difficult."

School Board member Rhonda Befort, who is on the board's Facilities Committee, said she was very disappointed in the election results.

"I have two little kids whose future is at stake because we are not going to see a new high school until they have to be crammed into the existing high school," she said.

"I think people have spent so many hours, so many years, trying to develop this school and make the community part of this, and now it's gone for nothing.

"Bringing up this petition so late in the game - I think it's tragic. I think it's hard feelings. I think you're looking at a 50-50 split and on a third vote. That's sad."

Befort was alluding to votes in 1999 and 2003 to fund the Dimond Park school.

Spengler, a parent who voted for the school, said the ballot measure was a topic of conversation among neighbors and parents he knows at his children's schools.

Out of perhaps 10 parents he talked to, six or seven opposed the new school, he said. They seemed to believe that the enrollment didn't justify it and that the district couldn't afford to operate it.

"They didn't feel like it was well planned out - the second school," Spengler said. "They were concerned people would have to be bused in for certain classes, and teachers would have to go back and forth."

Good said voters told him they felt misled about enrollment numbers "and that the district only shared information that supported their claim for needing a big new school, that there was no discussion of viable alternatives."

Assembly member Johnson said she knew of one constituent who had never voted against a school project in 30 years and told her it was hard to go into a voting booth and not support a school.

"This one seemed out of line to them. It was just a real difficult decision," Johnson said of the constituent.

Befort said she ran into voters who confused the district's woes in balancing its operating budget for next school year with the costs of building a new school.

The money comes from separate sources, and some of the anticipated operating budget shortage was related to unusually high retirement fund contributions. But the publicized prospect of laying off 26 teachers alarmed some voters.

"The timing was really bad," Befort said. "I think people really misunderstood the difference between bond money and operating money."

Mayor Botelho said he believes very strongly that the message from the voters shouldn't be taken as a vote against education.

"This is not a referendum on whether to support public education," he said.

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