My Turn: Have faith in school leaders

Posted: Thursday, September 16, 2004

On Oct. 5 we will be asked to vote on a ballot measure which authorizes bonds for building the new Valley high school.

For several years Juneau residents have discussed, debated, and planned for the Valley high school. There is strong support for this project in the community, and many compelling reasons have been expressed in that regard - including those of an academic, social and economic nature. Of particular significance is the fact that current JDHS enrollment is approximately 1,700, yet the facility is only rated for a capacity of 1,170.

Our present high school dropout rate is also quite high, and the graduation rate could be better. These are just some of the issues requiring attention. So by itself will a new school building solve them? No, of course not. But it's an important step in the right direction. Efforts to solve intricately related problems such as these will be far more effective if our school administrators are dealing with two smaller, more manageably sized schools, rather than one large overcrowded facility.

Voters in previous elections (1999 and 2003) have reinforced our community support for the Valley high school. And earlier this spring we were on the verge of beginning construction when questions were raised about the affordability of the previously proposed facility. Those questions were echoed in the May 25 special election, the results of which postponed construction until further review and more analysis could be performed.

During June and July a panel of representatives from several CBJ organizations, the school district, independent auditors, and interested citizens worked closely to discuss and evaluate the concerns raised by voters in the special election. After much effort, and performing a detailed financial analysis, their conclusion was to recommend a smaller, less expensive version of the Valley high school. Of all the options that were objectively considered this one was the most economically feasible - a fundamental concern many people expressed about the previous proposal.

So now the total cost of the new school has been reduced, the physical size of the school has been reduced and the student capacity has been reduced. The curriculum has been clarified in great detail. Additional state funding has also been received, which averted the prospect of the teacher layoffs that were pending earlier this year. And, very significantly, the Valley high school proposal is now eligible for 70 percent reimbursement, up from a previous 60 percent. That reimbursement is a generous gift from the state of Alaska that amounts to almost $38 million dollars.

Our community should also be mindful of what a "No" vote might mean. It could earn Juneau the unpleasant image of being a community that isn't supportive of children or education. It could send the message that we do not have confidence in our School Board or the Assembly. It might discourage families with children from living here. And for those reasons some of our children may not want to raise their own families in Juneau.

There are many communities elsewhere in Alaska, the Lower 48, and all around the world with more than one high school. They are getting along just fine. We will too. And rest assured that the fond memories and cherished experiences of past JDHS graduates will in no way be diminished by the new Valley high school. Nor will the memories and experiences of future students at either school.

It is now time to move forward. We must get beyond the endless debates and community divisiveness. We need to stop focusing on pessimism and negativity. We should quit making doomsday predictions. Let's adopt a positive attitude about Juneau, our educational system, and our children's future. By working together, and being optimistic, we can set an example of a higher standard.

Whether Juneau grows a little, whether it grows a lot or whether it doesn't grow at all remains to be seen. The future is unknown, and cannot be accurately predicted by anyone. The current proposal, however, represents a balanced compromise between optimism and conservatism for whatever the future may hold. Regardless of where that path leads, the combination of JDHS and a Mendenhall Valley high school will help to ensure the continued economic and educational vitality of this community.

Both our school board and the CBJ assembly were unanimous in approving this proposal for the October election. Let's show that we have confidence in their recommendation - and in the job we elected them to do. Let's look forward to a bright future. Support the valley high school bonds with a "Yes" vote.

• Patrick M. Cuddihy lives in Auke Bay and has three elementary-age school children.

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