School Board needs to keep an open mind

Empire editorial

Posted: Wednesday, June 16, 2004

The Juneau School Board wants nothing more than to build a second high school. But what it really needs right now is credibility.

The board is now charged with looking at two possible solutions to the high school's spacing crunch: Build a scaled-down school in the Mendenhall Valley or renovate the Marie Drake building so it becomes a permanent part of Juneau-Douglas High School. These options were the fruit of two days of brainstorming and discussion by a 15-member panel assigned to come up with possibilities after voters killed the board's plan to build another high school.

With just 51 percent of the voters defeating the project, some proponents of the second school may think all that's needed is to finesse the plan enough to tilt the vote back in their favor. But much more than that is needed.

Opponents of the second school have voiced frustrations over the sense that the Juneau School Board is so dead-set on a second school that it has ignored critics' concerns. The board's failure to address critical issues, such as class size and school programs, cost votes in the election. If it wants to move ahead on a second high school, it's going to have to take a more serious look at these issues, as well as costs, in the next plan.

The board's also going to have to go even further by keeping an open mind about the renovation of Marie Drake. That plan needs to be given full consideration if the board wants to avoid the perception that it's ramming its plans down the community's throat, regardless of concerns by 51 percent of the voters. Board members need to be especially careful in picking a credible, unbiased consultant so that if the final analysis is that a Marie Drake renovation is impractical, that conclusion holds water.

The mayor's committee on the school controversy deserves credit for coming up with two options, rather than just moving ahead on another version of the Dimond Park school.

Nonetheless, the composition of the panel raises questions about how much critics are going to be allowed to be a part of the process. While Mayor Bruce Botelho started out with good intentions to create a group that fairly represented the community, the makeup of the board was tilted toward those who favored a second high school. Voters are only going to become more skeptical of the board's plans if critics are not fully included in the planning process.

The board also would be wise to take another poll on its next proposal before pushing ahead on yet another ballot initiative. Staying in touch with voters' concerns is critical to making sure that the next school proposal is successful.

The School Board has two paths it can take: Ignore voters' worries about a new school and stack the process in its favor so it can alienate even more voters; or take off the blinders to other options and address critics' concerns so it can be on the winning side of the next election.

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