Both sides on new high school issue need to work together

Posted: Sunday, May 30, 2004

Robert Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire.

Headed into last Tuesday's election that would decide the fate of a second high school to be built at Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley, my biggest concern wasn't the outcome of the vote. Rather, it was what would happen in the aftermath.

For supporters and opponents of the high school, the aftermath begins Wednesday morning when they meet with Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho to begin making plans for how this community will meets its long-term educational needs, and there are many.

That Tuesday's vote was as close at it was - 51 percent of the voters ultimately opposed the second high school - wasn't as much of a shock to me as it did to many. My sense was that the community as a whole was closely divided on the issue and that it would remain divided even after the election.

If anyone was especially surprised that the high school bond issue didn't fly Tuesday, it was because the proposal had passed in two previous elections. It was only in the past several months that the community group Juneau Students First focused its opposition on the school's design, its overall cost, added operational costs and what it said would be diluted academic offerings at two separate schools.

Tension between Juneau Students First and Build It Now, the group that supported the Valley high school, grew in the weeks before the election, as did confusion over the facts, figures, statistics and projections that were bandied about by both groups. Such was the body of information on both sides that most voters were unconvinced of the need for a second high school, and many of them were probably overwhelmed by data overload.

What happens now will be the most interesting part of this whole issue. What's needed immediately is for members of Juneau Students First and Build It Now to overlook their differences and either hastily formulate a plan for a less expensive, more functional second high school or develop a plan for refurbishing the old Marie Drake school. That won't happen, however, if tension between the groups and their supporters persists.

At the very minimum, the Juneau School District and the city of Juneau must determine how some $18 million in bonds that have already been sold for a second high school will be spent. Because much of that decision will be based on the legalities of the bond sales, it could be that the plan that gets hammered out now can be agreed upon more easily than was the latest proposal. We should know soon whether that's the case.

The follow-up we see in the next few weeks will tell us how much resolve and community leadership we have in Juneau. I'm betting it will be quite a bit, but I certainly don't expect it to come easily.

• Bob Hale is publisher of the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at robert.hale@juneauempire.com.



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