My Turn: Beyond bricks and mortar

Posted: Wednesday, May 28, 2003

Big or small, Juneau is about to gain another high school. But, beyond brick and mortar, it's what happens inside schools that makes the biggest difference in the lives of students.

Reluctantly, I am willing to support Proposition 1 to build a bigger-than-necessary new school in the Valley. And it's a great idea to approve Proposition 2 to finish JDHS as it can only save us money.

But, I'm sore to admit this because I believe that smaller schools have certain advantages over bigger schools and that Juneau could have had the best of both worlds - a new, smaller, program-driven, less-expensive school, as well as an established larger school from which families could choose. Water under the bridge, I'm told. Parity between schools is what the community demands, I'm told.

Plus, the economic opportunity that is before us, to grab as much state support for our big new Valley school, is difficult to argue against during these financial hard times. For a community that sorely lacks facilities in the Valley, it's more bang for the facility buck.

But how did our cart end up before the horse? Isn't it far past time that our entire community began the more important discussion of what should happen within the two high schools? What will the new school have to offer Juneau's educational community besides a big new building? How can both schools' programs be integrated to unite the learning community? Just how much competition between schools is healthy for our community and local businesses? Who will attend these schools? Are geographic-demographic boundaries appropriate for determining who learns how and where in Juneau? If only we had spent as much time on these topics as we have in discussions about design, size and cost.

Headlines this week tell us the district is laying off teachers to balance the budget; that AP classes, art and music are being cut; that the school board hasn't settled contract negotiations with our teachers. So, what's the use of big new schools if our kids are packed 35-40 per class, without music, art, or other important programs because the district can't attract, hire and retain enough quality educators?

It seems we are asked to choose between crowded halls due to lack of space or crowded classrooms due to lack of teachers. Unfortunately, adding a big new high school won't likely decrease financial pressures on the district's limited resources. And instead of attracting back families who've deserted Juneau's public schools, we risk losing even more.

The inflation that has raised the cost of these two high school projects is the same inflation that is gnawing away at the pool of professionals willing to teach anywhere, much less in one of the most expensive cities in our nation. If Juneau can afford a big new high school, shouldn't our school board be able to offer Juneau's teachers a contract at least as good as Ketchikan, Sitka, Fairbanks and MatSu?

So, before you vote yes on Propositions 1 and 2, call school board members and tell them to settle a fair contract with our teachers. Beyond brick and mortar, it's what happens inside schools that makes the biggest difference in the lives of students.

Clay Good is a science teacher at Juneau-Douglas High School.

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