The city will spend several hundred thousand dollars to continue designing a proposed high school at Dimond Park, city and school officials have decided.
Supporters said the city needs to show the Legislature that it wants a new school and is ready to build one when state funds are offered.
"If we don't keep sending a strong message for a new high school, we're definitely not going to get it," said Assembly member Marc Wheeler.
The city could start building the new school a year earlier, and save those inflationary costs, if it's further along in the design work when the project is approved, supporters also said.
But one Assembly member would rather see the design money spent on fixing up Juneau-Douglas High School. And other city officials at a project team meeting last month were concerned that some of the design funds could be wasted if building codes, educational programs or enrollment projections change before a new school is built.
Large projects such as high schools are designed in stages that grow progressively expensive as the design reaches new levels of detail. City architect Catherine Fritz estimated that the next stage, called schematic design, would cost several hundred thousand dollars.
The Dimond Park high school, in the Mendenhall Valley, hasn't ranked high on the state's priority list of school construction projects over the past two years. Deputy Mayor John MacKinnon, who opposed going beyond schematic design, told the project team that the city isn't likely to get "out-of-priority" funding from the Legislature.
The Legislature has authorized partial reimbursement of the JDHS project, but not of the new school. The city plans to ask voters this fall to go ahead with the JDHS work. The renovation would start next summer and wouldn't be affected by the decision to continue design on the new high school, said architect Paul Voelckers of the Juneau firm Minch Ritter Voelckers, which is designing both projects in consultation with the national firm Fanning and Howey Associates.
School board member Chuck Cohen, who pushed to continue funding the new school's design, said it was a matter of keeping faith with valley residents that the city is committed to moving forward with a high school there.
"I think when something loses momentum, it really starts to drop off the plate," Cohen told the project team.
Voters in October 1999 approved a bond package of $50 million to build a 1,200-student high school at Dimond Park and $13 million to renovate JDHS to suit 1,200 students.
Its 1,600 students crowd the halls and take some classes in the Marie Drake building next door. Another 150 high school students attend alternative programs at other sites.
Voters in 1999 made construction of the two projects contingent on partial state reimbursement of the bond debt. But they allowed up to $3 million to be spent toward designing the projects and tearing down a building next to JDHS. The project team decides how to spend that money.
Ken Koelsch, an Assembly member on the project team, opposed financing the next stage in the valley school's design. He said he'd rather see the money spent on JDHS, whose renovation isn't fully funded.
"My big concern is to make sure we have enough money to do the renovation," he said in an interview. "One step at a time."
Voters last year authorized the city to add $4 million in sales tax revenues to fix up JDHS. But even the $17 million total budget doesn't cover everything that needs improvement. Last month, after a detailed review of costs, architects scaled down the scope of work.
The reductions "don't savage the project, but there are a few things people like that they may not get," Voelckers said.
City Manager Dave Palmer wanted the school district to review its enrollment projections, which have shaped the size of the proposed valley school. Palmer told the project team that the city has a duty to build a school close in size to what it expects to use.
Although the high school's enrollments have been stable over the past few years, the school district's overall student numbers have been declining.
Cohen said by the time the new school opens, which could be in seven or eight years, both schools will be at about three-quarters of their capacity, and the city should plan for the long term. Schools last 50 to 100 years, he said.
Eric Fry can be reached at email@example.com.
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