Empire editorial: School officials' next building project: trust

Voters told bonds would complete school auditorium, now district Superintendent Cowan is back-pedaling

Posted: Sunday, June 17, 2007

School Superintendent Peggy Cowan made a jaw-dropping statement Tuesday night after a lackluster special election on the new Mendenhall Valley high school.

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Juneau voters had just approved about $17 million in bonds to pay for an auditorium, track and field, and equipment for Thunder Mountain High School.

With the lowest voter turnout in years, the day was far from stunning - until Cowan said it's too soon to tell if the new auditorium could be finished with the $11.2 million voters just sanctioned.

"We're not sure that it will be complete," she said.


Is she really telling us that after coming back for more money on the hotly debated school, district planners still don't know if the additional millions will do the job as promised?

Proponents of the recent propositions clearly stated - repeatedly - that these measures would complete the new high school.

Cowan is understandably back-pedaling from her Tuesday night comment. She now says she has a high degree of confidence that the ballot proposition will provide enough money to complete the project.

The plan is not to bid out the project, but negotiate completion from an earlier bid. If it must be rebid, then officials don't know for sure if the new bids will meet budget, and that's what she was referring to Tuesday night, she said.

You'd think that people managing millions of dollars for a school project would have nailed down before the election whether they really can work off the earlier bid. School officials could have discussed this with the current contractor at any time, but they didn't.

Cowan's changing comments are exactly why many Juneau residents question school officials' integrity and their ability to plan.

Many Juneau voters already think the district has played a shell game, shifting facts and figures to push the new school through against reasoned opposition. They're frustrated the district has come back to ask for more money to finish the school.

But even some who have lost faith in school officials voted for the propositions because part of the argument is undeniable - nationwide construction costs did skyrocket unexpectedly - and in the end, kids are the ones who would lose out on sports and performing arts facilities.

School officials need to prevent further erosion of public trust. They need to plan their projects better so they aren't pieced together in bits. They need to stick with their statements and not oversimplify the process to persuade people to cough up cash.

"Oops, we didn't tell you how the bidding process really works, so it's not going to turn out quite like you were led to believe."

Naturally, nobody came right out and said that. It would have been refreshing if someone had. Even more refreshing if it had been before the election, rather than after.

Juneau residents have had enough of school leaders' double talk: Find a way to finish the school without asking for more money.

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