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Juneau missed an opportunity

Posted: Friday, June 18, 2004

On the WaterfrontBy Elton Engstrom

It was a dark day in Juneau's history. I'm not talking about the issue of whether the high school should be big or small, whether it should have 2,000 or 2,100 students or 800 to 1,000. When I was in high school we had less than 300.

I'm not talking about whether it is easier or not to teach in an environment with a large student body or a small one.

I'm not talking about the advantage or disadvantage of having one basketball team or two or whether the sports and academic character would be improved or not by having competition.

I'm talking only about progress, as it has always, in my opinion, been perceived as well as broken promises.

There have been many historical markers tracing the growth of Juneau as a financial, medical, educational and governmental center for Southeast Alaska and for the whole state.

In 1912 the capital was moved from Sitka. The change was fueled by the growing population of men working in the mines and their families. Over the years significant community improvements have occurred, such as Bartlett Hospital and the University of Alaska Southeast.

But the vote to postpone, perhaps for a long time, at least until 2,100 students crowd the downtown school, is a historical marker of a different character. It involves the unique result of turning down, according to the Empire, about a $56 million state grant.

In the initial building phase it would have employed many skilled local workers, in the electrical, plumbing, steel working and carpentry trades. Their wages would have flowed through the local economy.

Can anyone conceive of Anchorage or Fairbanks or Ketchikan turning down such a state grant. Would Fairbanks turn down a new building at the state university? Would Anchorage turn down a new school in a distant suburb? Instead, they would be first in line to ask for more State money.

When we reflect 20 or 30 years from now, I won't be here to complain because I'm almost 70, and forgive me if I sound like a cranky old crab apple, I hope this won't be pointed out as a historical marker measuring the decline of Juneau instead of its advance and betterment.

Maybe if the vote had been on a simple proposition like the need for additional classroom space, then we would have avoided all the hang-ups over a new high school. After all, the superintendent of the high school recently said she needed more space, and might have to go out on the rental market to find it. Maybe this means we'll have to fill up some of the downtown office buildings with classrooms, but boy, we sure missed the simpler and cheaper alternative by foregoing a $56 million gift from the state.



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