Special election showed it was cost vs. need

Posted: Sunday, June 13, 2004

Opponents of the Dimond Park high school were most concerned about cost, and supporters wanted to alleviate overcrowding at Juneau-Douglas High School, according to a recent poll of voters about the May 25 special election.

Only 29 percent of respondents said Juneau should build a scaled-down high school in the Mendenhall Valley, which is one of the options the Juneau School Board is considering for an October ballot measure.

The McDowell Group, a Juneau research firm, publicly presented the results of the $10,900 poll on Friday before a group of citizens and officials that met to discuss the election in which 51 percent of voters turned down a $63 million, 1,080-student high school at Dimond Park.

The McDowell Group wasn't able to get a list of voters in the May 25 election, so its contractor surveyed from a list of residents who voted in three of the last five city elections, said Jim Calvin, a partner in the research firm.

Nearly 87 percent of the 300 residents surveyed June 4-5 did vote in the May 25 election. Their votes closely corresponded to the election results, Calvin said.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 5.8 percent. Calvin said he didn't see meaningful differences in the responses of downtown residents and Valley residents.

Voters were asked the top reasons for voting for or against the initiative.

Nearly half of those who voted for the initiative (and thus against the school) cited cost as the most important reason, but they didn't always specify whether they meant construction cost or operating cost.

Other reasons were lack of confidence in the planning, the elaborate design, and feeling that two high schools would divide the community.

The most important reason for voting against the initiative (and thus for the school) was overcrowding or large class sizes at Juneau-Douglas High School.

The survey didn't separate the responses regarding class sizes. The new school was not intended to reduce class sizes. Those are determined each year by how many teachers the school district can afford to hire, and would be the same whether Juneau had one high school or two.

Voters who supported the Dimond Park school also cited the need to meet a deadline for state reimbursement of part of the construction cost, and to lower the dropout rate and give students more attention.

Those surveyed also were asked whether they agreed or disagreed with a number of statements.

• About two-thirds agreed that JDHS is overcrowded.

• Forty-one percent felt Juneau couldn't afford to build a second high school.

• Fifty-two percent said Juneau couldn't afford to run two high schools.

• Nearly half said the projected enrollment doesn't warrant building a second high school within the next five years.

• Fifty-five percent said the design was more elaborate than it needed to be.

• Voters were split about whether it was important to take advantage of state reimbursement, and whether a second high school would improve education.

• Only thirty-seven percent thought a second high school would weaken sports programs or divide the community in a negative way.

The focus group that met Thursday and Friday didn't talk much about the poll results. Calvin, of the McDowell Group, said the city would need to present residents with choices if it wanted to gauge what to do next.

The Juneau Assembly hasn't decided whether to commission another survey, Mayor Bruce Botelho said Friday. Juneau School Board member Bob Van Slyke said the board should have time to provide the public with information about options before they are polled.

The focus group asked the board to study building a scaled-down school at Dimond Park and renovating the Marie Drake building next to JDHS.

The recent poll showed that 21 percent of those who voted against the Dimond Park high school nonetheless agreed that Juneau should build a smaller high school in the Valley. That support could boost a proposed smaller school into the winning column in an election.

Assembly member Merrill Sanford said a scaled-down, less expensive school that would garner more state reimbursement for its construction could attract a majority of votes.

"Some people who voted for the initiative felt it was just overbuilt - too big, too fancy, too round," said Frank Rue, a focus group member who supported the Dimond Park school.

On the other hand, 54 percent of those who voted for the Dimond Park school disagreed that Juneau should build a smaller school.

"That seems to me the exact option favored by most of the folks around the (focus group) table," said Dave Palmer, one of the initiative sponsors. "You'd probably have to develop that a little more to see why people felt that way."

The poll results may reflect a desire for the community facilities, such as an auditorium and auxiliary gym, that the larger school had in its design, Rue said.

The proposed scaled-down school would include the option of adding an auditorium, an auxiliary gym and other amenities.

Palmer said a bond measure in October would come at a time when residents have seen their property tax rate and assessed values go up. That could be a factor in the election. A remodel of the Marie Drake building will be cheaper than building a new school, he said.

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