Focus group to look at high school options

City will ask voters why they voted the way they did in the special election

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

The city will ask voters from the recent special election why they voted for or against the Dimond Park high school. And the city will convene a focus group to see if its members can agree on whether another school project should be put on the October ballot.

Among the possibilities is a smaller school at Dimond Park than the one originally planned, Juneau School Board members said at a meeting of the board and the Juneau Assembly on Wednesday at City Hall.

A new school has not dropped off the School Board's wish list, School Board President Mary Becker said, but it needs to take a different format.

Voters on May 25 narrowly approved an initiative that blocked construction of a Dimond Park high school with proceeds from bonds authorized in 1999. But there's no legal prohibition against voters approving a school with new bonds, City Attorney John Hartle said.

"Where do we go from here is really the fundamental question we have to confront, that is, collectively as a community, collectively as a School Board and Assembly," Mayor Bruce Botelho said at the meeting Wednesday. "We are very mindful the community is divided."

The School Board and Assembly agreed the city should hire the McDowell Group, a Juneau research firm, to poll voters, possibly as soon as this weekend.

The elected officials also agreed to hold all-day meetings, open to the public, on June 10 and 11. The location has not been determined.

The focus group would be composed of one Assembly member, two School Board members, two representatives from the election advocacy groups Juneau Students First and Build It Now, and up to four other members of the public.

The focus group's job would be to recommend a ballot measure, if any, to the School Board, which has the legal responsibility to plan and design new schools or renovation projects. The School Board then would take any proposal to the Assembly, which approves school projects and places them on the ballot.

Botelho said the focus group needs a credible, meaningful discussion of the issues without immediately leaping to the assumption of a downsized school at Dimond Park.

Officials are working against an Aug. 24 deadline for the Assembly to adopt an ordinance in time for the October election. They are trying to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to receive state Department of Education approval of a bonded project, which would trigger reimbursement of 60 percent or 70 percent.

The School Board would have until July 26 to present the Assembly with its proposal, Deputy City Manager Donna Pierce suggested.

The city could hold a later special election, if needed, but officials would like to spare the roughly $35,000 expense of such an election.

Botelho said the recent ballot initiative probably was the most divisive issue he's seen in Juneau.

"There are families that voted in different ways. There are friends of long standing who are angry with each other," he said.

Members of Juneau Students First, which supported the initiative, and Build It Now, which opposed it, agreed to serve on the focus group. It's not clear whether they can agree on a new proposal.

"It will be very hard for one of those groups to give up what they think is best for students," said School Board member Andi Story.

Bill Peters, co-chairman of Build It Now, said Juneau still needs a second high school. Voters were confused about the educational programs, the benefit of two schools and operating costs, he said.

"Many people were confused. They simply didn't understand all the pieces of the yes vote," he said.

Dave Palmer, one of the initiative sponsors, said the focus group should include educators and people with financial expertise, so the group has new information to work with. The group needs to decide first what is needed to keep students from dropping out, he said.

"We think it has to do with (pupil-teacher ratio), engaging kids with options, and facilities follow that," Palmer said.

He said Juneau Students First hasn't met to discuss whether it would support a smaller second high school.

It's also not clear what will happen if the focus group can't come to a consensus.

The focus group's goal should be to get a measure on the ballot that voters will approve, School Board member Alan Schorr said. Officials need a high level of certainty that they are doing something the community will buy into, he said.

The upcoming poll will help explain why people voted against the Dimond Park school and what it would take to get them to approve a school, he said.

But Assembly member Stan Ridgeway, in an interview, said the School Board has an obligation to plan for the education of Juneau's students, even if there's no clear consensus from the focus group.

"The School Board has to plan and put out to the voters what they think the best educational decision is," he said.

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