Board to look at new school, Drake rebuild

Focus group meets to address space needs of current, future enrollments

Posted: Sunday, June 13, 2004

The Juneau School Board has been asked to look at the feasibility of building a scaled-down high school at Dimond Park and at renovating and expanding the Marie Drake building next to Juneau-Douglas High School.

Building another school or accepting Marie Drake permanently as part of JDHS were the most viable options to meet the need for more space, according to a group of citizens and officials who met Thursday and Friday at the request of Mayor Bruce Botelho.

They considered what the city should do in the wake of a special election May 25 that blocked using 1999 bonds to build a high school at Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley.

The 15-member group, which included at least four people who supported the citizens' initiative that blocked the school, agreed that something needs to be done to provide space for JDHS's current and future enrollments. Even with the Marie Drake building as part of JDHS, the school overall is at capacity and the Drake building is shabby and over capacity.

JDHS has about 1,575 students. Another 80 to 100 students are in an alternative high school housed in leased quarters. Beyond that, participants, like the voters, couldn't reach unanimous consensus on much. Some group members said two smaller schools would have social and academic benefits. Others felt that smaller schools would offer fewer courses and perhaps cost too much to run, drawing money away from programs and staff.

The School Board has the authority to plan and design schools, and the Juneau Assembly approves school designs and places ordinances for bond measures on the ballot.

But the group had been asked to make recommendations, and on Friday it sketched out two options for meeting the need for more space.

"By narrowing the issues, you've made it a lot easier for the elected officials to move ahead," Botelho told the group Friday afternoon.

The proposed second high school, at Dimond Park, would accommodate about 830 students, down from the 1,080-student school that was rejected by voters 51-49 percent last month. Its design would be "basic," a concession to voters who felt the school cost too much to build.

At that size, the school likely would qualify for 70 percent reimbursement from the state, up from the 60 percent rate the larger school would have received.

The group suggested that the new school and JDHS offer a comparable core of classes, but that each could offer separate emphases, such as shop or world languages. Students would be able to enroll in either school.

The group said the second school would be close to a majority of residents, make it easier for parents in the Valley to be involved in school, offer a greater opportunity for students to participate in activities, make it easier for teachers in smaller faculties to communicate with each other, alleviate overcrowding, reduce traffic near JDHS, and allow the district to close both high school campuses. Students now are free to leave for lunch, and some don't return for afternoon classes.

Clay Good, a JDHS teacher who opposed the Dimond Park high school, said the proposal had the advantage of offering two schools with more defined educational purposes.

"If we can talk about what's going on in the building and then build to suit that, then we're barking up the right tree," he said.

Good later added: "There's no way we can split facilities into very different campuses and not dilute the program. But we can split them strategically and make them deliberately different."

The group also suggested that voters have the option - if they approve a new school - of adding an auditorium, auxiliary gym and other amenities that are of use to the community at large, with the understanding that state reimbursement would decline to 60 percent for a larger building.

Initiative supporter Dave Hanna, a longtime member of the construction industry, sketched out a way to incorporate the Marie Drake building as part of JDHS. Built as a middle school, the building has narrow hallways, low ceilings and an oppressive atmosphere, he said.

Hanna proposed creating a light-filled commons in the center of a rectangle of classrooms, adding new classrooms to the second story, and connecting the building to JDHS on both stories. He would place two levels of underground parking under a playing field that is to be built between Marie Drake and the swimming pool.

Hanna's idea was to use Marie Drake as a wing for freshmen and perhaps alternative programs. It would create a smaller learning community at least for those students. Students who do poorly in freshman year are at risk of dropping out.

Having one high school would allow Juneau to deliver the best possible education to meet students' individual needs, because there wouldn't be a reduction in courses, Hanna said.

It's not clear whether it's feasible to build underground parking at the site.

Bill Peters, a credit union executive who supported a second high school, said he'd rather spend money on education than a parking garage. He also wondered where the district could house Marie Drake's current students during a remodel.

The group unanimously asked the School Board to have feasibility studies prepared for both options, taking into consideration academic programs, construction costs and operating costs.

Such a study could cost several thousand dollars, said Loren Rasmussen, a retired engineer. The district might be able to use unspent funds from previous school renovation projects, School Board members said.

The School Board's Facilities Committee is scheduled to meet at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday at the district's central office.

The School Board faces a target of July 25 to provide the Assembly with a proposal, so that a bond measure can be put on the Oct. 5 ballot. Meanwhile, the School Board would ask the state Department of Education to review the proposal for eligibility for partial state reimbursement. The state's deadline is Dec. 31.

• Eric Fry can be reached at eric.fry@juneauempire.com.



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