Proposition seeks to upgrade schools with code violations

Proponents, city call for $22.4 million to pay for renovations

Posted: Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Ronald Reagan was a first-term president the last time Harborview Elementary School's Eisenhower-era construction was remodeled. Glacier Valley Elementary has not been renovated since its completion during the first years of Lyndon Johnson's administration. Proposition 5 on the Oct. 2 Juneau ballot seeks to raise $22.4 million in general obligation bonds to renovate two elementary schools that the city says are in disrepair.

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The proposition calls for $15.3 million to renovate Harborview Elementary School, which has seen only minor classroom repairs since the four-phase construction that started in 1951 and ended in 1983.

The city seeks an additional $7.1 million to upgrade Glacier Valley Elementary School, which has not been renovated since completion in 1965.

Superintendent Peggy Cowan said both schools have served the district well, but it's not surprising the district needs to attend to them.

If approved, the bond money will join $11.1 million of existing maintenance funds, some of which came from 2005 voter-approved bonds.

The city wants to raise both schools to current heating and ventilation, seismic and wind-shear codes.

Harborview will get handicapped-access ramps and wider doorways as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act. The current fire alarm system also fails to meet modern code. Additional renovations include kitchen work, lighting, power, data, security and phone systems.

The work at Glacier Valley would replace deteriorated structural, electrical and mechanical system described by the city as cost-prohibitive to operate. Additional classroom space is built into the plan. Cowan said a big expense comes with replacing all the interior doorways to wider handicapped-accessible entryways.

School Board Facilities Chairwoman Mary Becker said the work is important for students and the window for state reimbursement could close.

"Right now we can get 70 percent of the project reimbursed from the state," Becker said.

Retired state labor negotiator and Juneau taxpayer Art Chance said there is no question whether the work at the two schools needs to be done.

"Every public building in Alaska needs fixing," he said.

Chance has a different question to ask: Does every public building in Juneau need to be repaired with no question of labor costs? He takes issue with the status quo in the noncompetitive cost structure that the city uses. City project planners deliver estimates derived from contractors' figures whose bids are based on state Davis Bacon Act wages.

"Anywhere else it would be cheaper," Chance said.

What Chance means is that carpenters, masons and electricians will cost the project a minimum of $31.93 to $33.97 per hour because state law requires laborers on public projects to be paid what the state decides is the prevailing wage. This prevents variation in labor costs between competitive bids.

Chance said his fellow voters should think carefully about a way to get the city and the school district to reduce project costs.

"They need to figure out a way to get a bargain," Chance said. "There is such a thing as value."

Rorie Watt, Juneau's deputy director of engineering, said the city's charter does not allow direct negotiation with contractors. It's a sealed bid process, he said.

"When we put out the bid, we're at the mercy of the market," he said.

While the state has continued reimbursements on public school improvements for 15 years, there is never a guarantee the program will continue. The law covering these reimbursements expires in 2008. Juneau would be responsible for the entire $22.4 million debt if the state doesn't contribute the expected 70 percent, according to the city.

With reimbursement, the state would provide roughly $15.6 million to the overall renovation bill. The remaining debt payment plan is tied to Proposition 1, which asks voters whether to extend the temporary 1 percent sales tax, on the October ballot. If approved, part of those sales tax funds would go to school repairs.

City Finance Director Craig Duncan said that homeowners wouldn't necessarily see a rise in their annual tax bill right away if Proposition 5 on school renovations is passed. He said some of the current bond debt would mature by the time Prop 5 joined the fall tax bill in 2012.

Currently, a homeowner whose house is assessed at $300,000 pays about $3,111 annually toward the city's general obligation debt. Duncan said approximately $111 of that current bill is school bond debt.

If voters approve the continuation of the 1 percent sales tax, the money would pay the first five years of bond reimbursement for school renovation in Proposition 5. Duncan estimates that the homes worth $300,000 would contribute $62 per year to the school renovation debt after five years.

If voters reject the ballot measure, the schools would still require upgrades under state law. Cowan said the state requires the school district to have a capital improvement plan. It's a 10-year cycle of renovate, repair and replace, she said.

"We'll go back to the old system with the state," Becker said. The old system is need-based and Juneau will get in line, she said.

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or

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