Panel recommends new smaller school

School Board Committee asks that bonds for old project be spent on major maintenance

Posted: Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Voters in October may face bond measures to build a new high school in the Mendenhall Valley and spruce up some elementary schools.

The Facilities Committee of the Juneau School Board recommended Monday that the full board ask the Juneau Assembly to place those projects on the ballot. The board is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. today in a special session.

The Facilities Committee approved a 166,411-square-foot high school at Dimond Park that would accommodate about 840 students.

The panel recommended that the school include a 250-seat auditorium, auxiliary gym, commons, kitchen large enough to prepare meals districtwide and an auto and small-engine shop.

City engineers have roughly estimated the cost at $54 million, including a parking lot. The state would reimburse 70 percent of the bond costs, including interest on the debt.

Voters rejected an earlier high school project - for a 1,080-student, 220,000-square-foot school - on May 25. Since then, the city and school district have been comparing the costs of building and operating a smaller version of a second high school or fixing and expanding the Marie Drake building next to Juneau-Douglas High School.

Resident Randy Coleman told the Facilities Committee that he supported a Valley high school. He cited keeping the Drake building available for other purposes such as a middle school, the educational benefits of smaller schools and having a high school near the population center.

But Coleman cautioned that the new space might not be enough if the district reduces its dropout rate.

"Where are we going to put those kids? If we only build for 300 more kids, we're going to run out of room pretty quickly," he said.

The Drake option roughly would cost $38 million, city engineers said, assuming the city built as much new space as the state Department of Education would allow to be reimbursed at 70 percent.

A 500-space underground parking lot, topped by a playing field, would cost an estimated $20 million and wouldn't receive state funding, city engineers said.

Dave Hanna, a proponent of the Drake option, said the city didn't need to build that much new classroom space or that many parking spaces.

"My fear is we're spending money to build facility we won't need," he told the Facilities Committee.

He asked the school district to consider building only about a quarter as much classroom space as the city had estimated.

"It just would be very irresponsible to build a facility either we will not need for a long time or perhaps never need," Hanna said.

A recent study of operating costs showed that it would cost less to run a combined JDHS-Drake than to run JDHS and a Dimond Park school. But the state would give more funds for two high schools than for one school. It's not clear to what extent the new funding would cover the new expenses.

Laurie Berg, a resident who has followed the high school issue closely, said she is concerned that the district overestimated by about 100 the number of high school students there will be in 2008, the proposed school's first year.

State funds are tied to enrollment. If there are 100 fewer students than expected, there will be a greater gap between revenues and expenses than has been projected.

"A hundred less kids is probably a significant amount less revenue," Berg told the Facilities Committee.

The district employees who calculated the enrollments weren't available. But School Board member Bob Van Slyke said that as long as the city looked at comparable numbers for both options, the results will be just about the same.

The Facilities Committee also passed on to the full board a recommendation for nearly $18 million in major maintenance projects for four elementary schools, the Drake building and the district's central office, and to upgrade access for disabled people districtwide.

The work includes such items as new windows, floor coverings and paint. Harborview Elementary would get new siding and a roof, as well.

The current proposal represents a reduction of $10 million - mainly in work on exterior walls and in new lighting - from a list of projects the Facilities Committee considered in May.

For the maintenance projects, the panel recommended that the city ask voters to use $18 million in bonds from 1999 that were sold for, but not spent on, the originally planned high school at Dimond Park. Those funds would be reimbursed at 70 percent.

The School Board's first priority is getting a new high school built, Van Slyke said, judging from the members he has talked to.

"We don't want to do anything that will cause people to turn that down. At the same time, if this money can be put to good use, that's worth considering," he said.

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



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