Engineers: School renovation estimates too low

Assembly committee to consider ballot question to pay for $44 M in school renovations

Posted: Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Working estimates for renovations at three local schools were off about 20 percent, members of the Juneau Assembly's facilities committee learned Monday during a joint work session with the school district.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The city engineering department estimates renovations at two elementary schools and the Marie Drake building would cost $44.4 million. The original $36.8 million was based on 2006 figures, engineering director Rorie Watt said.

The Assembly is expected to decide by August whether to place a bond question on the October ballot for the renovations. Elected officials are faced with the request as communities across the country tighten fiscal belts in a down economy.

The school district is not the only entity seeking public funds in Juneau, Assembly member Merrill Sanford told the school facilities committee Monday.

"We are looking at other infrastructure costs that could be added to bonding," Sanford said, mentioning an incinerator at $30 million and a list of harbor projects. "I'm not discouraging you but trying to inform you that we're looking at a whole lot of other things besides the school's needs and wants."

While the district has a brand new high school that opened at the beginning of this school year, other schools built in the late 1960s or earlier have never been fully renovated.

Topping the list for attention is Gastineau Elementary, built in 1957.

Teachers there work in former closets with no windows or ventilation, District Facilities Coordinator Deb Morse said. Carpets are stained and worn, walls are pock-marked and children do not have enough space to each lunch. A set of stairs at the entryway means it is inaccessible for wheelchairs.

The estimated $11.8 million renovation would pay for a fence around the playground to keep kids in and bears out, said principal Angie Lunda. Work on the grounds could also fix flooding problems that sometimes put the back alleyway under two feet of water.

Both elementary schools need upgrades to mechanical, ventilation and lighting systems, and need to be brought up to code, Morse said. The mechanical system in the Auke Bay school, built in 1968, has never been replaced and has exceeded its life expectancy.

At Marie Drake, restroom doors have been removed to comply with code, plumbing and fire suppression systems hang visible from low ceilings and entire classes do not have windows. Furniture is chipped, ripped and mismatched.

The buildings have good bones, Morse said, but need a facelift.

The projects would be eligible for reimbursement grants from the state Department of Education.

The Assembly could decide to put all three, one, two or none of the projects on the ballot.

If approved by voters, the bonds would be repaid over 10 years through a property tax increase.

If all three projects passed, the increase in property tax to the owner of a $350,000 home would be $179 per year for 10 years. The owner of a $180,000 home would pay $92 per year.

Payback on only the top-priority project, the Gastineau Elementary renovation at $11.8 million, would cost $42 per year on a $350,000 property and $22 per year on a $180,000 home.

Voters in recent years approved a new high school that finished nearly $10 million over budget, extensive renovations at Harborview Elementary, a playground at Dzantik'i Heeni Middle School and a community pool that will be used by school children.

Assembly member Bob Doll asked Monday when the school district would get through the cycle of large investments.

School Board member Destiny Sergeant said "a while, if ever," while Morse disagreed.

"We have to look beyond the new high school and the controversy surrounding it and look at the situation now," Morse said. "These schools need to be renovated; they are the learning environments for children in this community. These improvements need to be addressed."

Assembly member Randy Wanamaker agreed.

"When I see the condition of these schools, I see they need this work ... no question," he said. "It's just, will the public be willing to accept it?"

• Contact reporter Kim Marquis at

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