Empire editorial: Striving for better education instead of just a hairline victory

Posted: Friday, August 27, 2004

Juneau citizens may feel like they're experiencing a bit of deja vu at the Oct. 5 municipal election as they vote for the fourth time on whether to build a second high school in the Mendenhall Valley.

This week the Juneau Assembly approved placing a scaled-down school proposal back on the ballot after voters nixed the project in a special election May 25 with a mere 51.33 percent majority.

Some school supporters appear to be working just to get enough support to push the votes to 51 percent in the school's favor.

But school backers need to be working for more than just those two extra percentage points that will give them victory. They need to be pushing for a project that this community can get behind.

Some of the recent changes in the school proposal are likely to garner more votes for the project. The school has been trimmed from a $63 million facility for 1,070 students to a $54 million campus for 840 kids. The smaller size allows state reimbursement for 70 percent of the cost, rather than 60 percent as before. A few other voters are likely to be pulled in by the decision to add some vocational ed programs at the new campus.

But a critical issue needs much more public discussion before the election: Will the new school improve education in the district?

To answer that, district officials need to hold several public meetings in the next month that look at curriculum, extra-curricular activities and the student-teacher ratio. In the last election, critics were concerned that too much emphasis had been placed on new buildings and too little focus directed at the educational programs within them.

The Juneau School District has put together a report that includes a proposed curriculum for the new school, but this curriculum needs to be discussed by the public so that when voters go to the polls, they are confident educational needs are being addressed. School Board President Mary Becker says that the district plans to start publishing regular reports in Juneau Empire ads to get the word out about educational plans for the proposed school. But meetings also need to be held so that the district can find out if its plans match the desires of the community.

Among the discussions that need to take place is whether the new school can be broken down into smaller learning groups so that students can reap the much-touted advantages of smaller schools while attending a mid-sized campus. Talk of an open campus has fallen by the wayside. But offering somewhat different programs at each school and giving students the choice as to which campus they attend should be considered. Transportation for such a plan could become a logistical nightmare, but even if such a plan is impractical, discussing such options - before the election - will help citizens feel like the district is considering their concerns.

Those who were active in derailing the second high school in the next election need to be involved in these meetings on curriculum and school programming. Otherwise, their claims that they were really concerned about the educational needs of the kids rings rather hollow.

If the school district wants the latest proposal to fly, it needs to make it clear before the election how the new school will improve education for Juneau high schoolers. Meeting with citizens and taking their input on school programs will only build trust and support for another campus. That support is critical in this election because if the proposed Dimond Park high school fails this time, there likely won't be a fifth election to save it.

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