My Turn: Now's the time to re-evaluate plans to build new high school

Posted: Sunday, September 28, 2003

Recently in this space, the Juneau School District's independent auditor explained that the upcoming school budget deliberations would start with a deficit of nearly $3 million. Further, he explains that it is unrealistic to expect the state or the city to bail the district out of this deficit. Dramatic cuts will mean fewer teachers. (At an average cost of $50,000 per teacher, $3 million represents 60 teaching positions).

Students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers should sit up and take notice. Here is the district's private-sector auditor addressing the public directly. Both the Juneau School Board and Juneau Assembly have known the facts he relates for some time. It's time to move from accounting to accountability.

In the face of this budget crisis, plans continue to design and build a new high school. Instead, we need to re-evaluate the assumptions that were the basis for the decision to build a core high school building for 1,500 students in the Mendenhall Valley. By comparison, high school enrollment now is around 1,600 students, total. Sure, the new school will have fewer classrooms because the initial population will be 800 to 900, but the construction and operations costs of the 1,500 student core start from Day One.

There are many compelling reasons for a critical review now. First, the projections by the district of the expected student enrollment were overly optimistic. Enrollment is down, not up. Operational funding from the state goes down when enrollment goes down.

Second, even assuming unchanging enrollment, a new high school will generate only $800,000 in new revenue from the state. This means that the district will have to staff, operate, and maintain the new high school with only $800,000 in new money. The rest has to come from existing operations. In other words, there will be no new teachers hired to staff the new high school. Expect to see a principal, nurse, custodians, a librarian and a clerk added to the payroll. Utility costs will be at least $250,000. Insurance costs will increase.

The plan, best I can understand it, is to split the teaching resources and the students between the two high school buildings. Will teachers be commuting between schools? Will students? Will French be offered at one school and Spanish at another? Exactly how this will work for the teachers and students is yet undetermined. Which brings me to point three.

While years of time and millions of dollars have been spent planning the new building, the district still has no idea what the educational program in the new high school will actually look like. A recent forum on this subject had the district asking those attending what they would like. Students, parents, teachers and taxpayers should be demanding that the school district develop an educational plan that tells us how they (who were elected for this duty and have the legal responsibility) intend to present the school system's educational plan given the fiscal realities in front of them.

Further, the Assembly should demand from the district an operational plan and budget to honestly depict how the district expects to operate a new 219,000-square-foot building with only $800,000 in new money. The Assembly needs to assure that a realistic business plan is in place before it gives final approval of the building design and proceeds with bidding for construction.

Conditions have changed since the new high school was proposed to the voters. It is time to stop the rush to build a new building and focus on what we all started out to do in the first place, provide quality education. The building is the vessel, but it is not the end product. Supporting education means assuring that priorities and resources are directed effectively. I fear we've become too focused on the building and have failed to react to the changes going on around us. It's not too late to demand accounting and accountability.

Finally, in response to the request for ideas for a school mascot and school colors: If the present trend is unchanged, the mascot should be the ostrich and the school color will be red ink.

• Dave Palmer served as Juneau's city manager for seven years and was on the joint City-School District high school planning team.

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