My Turn: Don't spend millions on super-sized school

Posted: Sunday, June 01, 2003

On Tuesday, a small number of Juneau voters will head to the polls for a special election. The election asks whether local taxpayers are willing to contribute millions more for a new high school in the Valley and even more improvements to the existing downtown high school.

Prudent voters would do well to hit the polls and vote "No" regarding these unnecessary and expensive ballot issues. Unfortunately low voter turnout and a confusing and complicated ballot will probably contribute to passage of the two ballot bond questions.

While we need a new high school in our community and should build a new school at the Dimond Park location in the Valley, we need not mortgage our community's financial future for excessive improvements and unnecessary features. The basic problem with the ballot propositions is that the underlying assumptions being touted in favor of passage are wrong and divorced from population demographic projections.

Currently Juneau has around 1,600 secondary students packed into a high school that could comfortably house 1,200 students when the school is finally reconfigured. If we build a new school in the Valley with an expanded capacity of 1,500 students (as is planned) Juneau will wind up with two schools with space for 2,700 students. The thing is, Juneau is decades away from needing capacity for close to 2,700 secondary students. With looming state budget cuts and a likely economic recession in Alaska heading our way caution is justified. In fact, we might even lose population in Juneau if oil prices drop and cuts to state government continue. If you think this is a bleak scenario, check out what is happening in other parts of Southeast Alaska. Juneau is not going to be isolated from the economic and political fallout that is going to cause a significant retrenchment in Alaska in the next decade.

The proposed school bond package on Tuesday's ballot contains fluff and is a needlessly expensive option that will not appreciably improve secondary education for our students. As a community, we have already spent over a million dollars planning the new school in the Valley. We have over $48 million "in hand" to build a new school - more than enough to build a perfectly serviceable school that will serve Juneau's needs for decades.

Blowing millions more on a super-sized monument in the Valley has nothing to do with improving education in our community. What we should do is use the millions available for school construction in an intelligent fashion instead of resorting to wishful thinking and construction of kitchens, parking areas and other features unrelated to education.

Building an oversized school in the Valley will stretch maintenance budgets and conceivably require closure of the downtown school in future. Juneau's economic and demographic prospects are essentially flat and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. There is no realistic scenario where we will need space for 2,700 students in the next two decades. If we build the super-sized school, this community will wind up with excess capacity and conceivably face the prospect of consolidating 10th, 11th and 12th grades in a single school in the Valley while reconfiguring the middle schools as more traditional "junior high schools."

Schools in Juneau and throughout the nation are some of the most underutilized facilities built with public funds. With a tiny bit of creative thinking, Juneau can meet the actual needs of our student population with the millions we have on hand. This isn't an election about finishing the job; it's about making sure you don't get jobbed by bureaucrats, consultants and the so-called "experts." Do yourself and the finances of your family a favor and vote "No" and "No" on Tuesday.

Joe Geldhof is a Juneau lawyer.

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