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Valley HS cost increases

Architect: Price tag for new school will be $10 million more than originally projected

Posted: Friday, August 30, 2002

The proposed high school in the Mendenhall Valley will be more expensive and smaller than originally projected, but it may not cost local taxpayers more than they have agreed to pay already, said architect Paul Voelckers.

A new high school for 1,050 students will cost $60 million, Voelckers told the Juneau School Board Facilities Committee on Thursday afternoon. Local voters in 1999 approved bonds for a $50 million high school for 1,200 students, contingent on getting at least half the cost reimbursed by the state.

"The Juneau taxpayers have expressed a willingness to fund up to half of a $50-million project," said schools Superintendent Gary Bader. "Though it has to be discussed between the Assembly and the School Board, (local taxpayers) may be asked to fund 40 percent of a $60 million project, or essentially no more than they were asked to pay before."

The state Legislature passed a law this year that allows state reimbursement of 60 percent of municipalities' school construction costs, or 70 percent in some cases. But the law becomes effective only if statewide voters in November agree to state general obligation bonds of $236 million for rural school construction, the University of Alaska and an Anchorage museum.

Even if the local taxpayer obligation for the proposed school does not change, a change in the total cost of the project requires the high school bond package to be approved by Juneau voters again, said City Attorney John Corso.

The high school design is now smaller to accommodate projections of less growth in the Juneau population than enrollment data did at the project's start, Voelckers said. Bader said the smaller design also was a result of cost constraints.

Juneau-Douglas High School has about 1,800 students at the start of this school year, about 90 of whom are in an alternative program housed in a separate building. School district officials believe JDHS properly accommodates 1,200 students.

Assembly member Dale Anderson, who also works for Anchorage Republican Rep. Eldon Mulder, was cautious about relying on passage of the state general obligation bond package.

"It should not be a forgone conclusion that the G.O. bonds will pass in November," Anderson said. "The amount of money that the voters in Alaska have to consider is enormous."

If the bonds pass, Juneau would be eligible for 60 percent state reimbursement for a school of any size. Juneau also would be eligible for 70 percent reimbursement of space that the state Department of Education thinks is needed. In the most recent state review of the project, the agency said about 80 percent of the then-proposed 1,200-student school was eligible for state reimbursement.

"The project didn't qualify for all the space on a student-population basis," said Tim Mearig, architect with the state Department of Education. "There might be a way for them to come back with additional substantiation and get the state's support for a higher number, but that would be unlikely."

Anderson, who has questioned the district's enrollment projections in the past, said voters should have a say in whether the high school project should proceed with the revised budget.

"I'm not drawing a line in the sand and disagreeing whether the school could be built." Anderson said. I am concerned about cost ... This is a smaller school for more money and that is a substantive change."

City Architect Catherine Fritz, who oversees the new high school project, sent a memo in June to Assembly member Frankie Pillifant, who chairs the Public Works and Facilities committee, suggesting the city conduct an independent review of the demographic projections.

"We have a lot of things on our list, but we have talked about it (a new demographics study) and will certainly consider it," Pillifant said today.

In an interview Thursday, Fritz said that though the proposed school is smaller, it is designed to be expanded to accommodate 1,500 students, a further renovation that would be very costly and would require voter approval for bonds.

"We are assuming that people are going to agree with doing a very large phase two in the future," Fritz said.

Fritz could not say what the next step would be with the project, except to agree that a local vote probably would be necessary.

"The mantra in my department is, 'scope, schedule and budget,' and at this point this project is at a convergence point," she said.

At the School Board committee meeting, Bader was concerned with the schedule and whether design funds would run out before an election to approve the new costs. Voters in 1999 allowed some of the bond proceeds to be used for planning and design.

The School Board probably will wait until after the November election to bring the new plan to the Assembly, Bader said. If the state bonds pass, the board may suggest a special election sooner, rather than later, to take advantage of interest rates, Bader said.

"Now is a particularly good time to bond," he said.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.



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