My Turn: Juneau can't afford not to build a second high school

Posted: Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Last May, Juneau narrowly voted not to build a new high school in the Valley. Shortly thereafter, the city commissioned a survey to determine the main reasons why people voted for or against the initiative. The mayor also convened a group to examine options to resolve overcrowding at Juneau-Douglas High School. Those options have been studied carefully by independent auditors at Elgee, Rehfeld and Mertz, the School Board and the Assembly, with considerable public input at several open meetings. Out of this process, several facts have emerged.

First, there is no doubt that additional space is needed for our students; doing nothing is simply not an option. Juneau has grown every decade since its founding in 1880; there's no reason to believe growth will stop now. But even without any population growth, more space is desperately needed for our students. JDHS already has over 500 students above its rated capacity. About 100 more students showed up this year than were expected. The dropout rate is 6 percent annually, 25 percent over four years. We must reduce these numbers, but cannot do so without a place to put these students. We've gotten by so far by leasing space for the alternative high school, using the outmoded Marie Drake building, and in effect counting on nearly 100 kids to drop out each year. That approach is irresponsible. It must be changed.

Several options have been considered to resolve this problem. Of these, the mayor's task force determined only two warranted close examination: expanding Marie Drake and building a smaller high school in the Valley. Each option was examined closely by the district, the independent auditors, the School Board, and the Assembly. The conclusion was that, after accounting for state reimbursement, the Marie Drake option would cost Juneau taxpayers much more to build and more to operate and maintain than would a second high school. The analysis also showed that comparable academic programs could be offered at both JDHS and the new school.

The Marie Drake option also had several other problems. Yet a second school, while far preferable, also faced significant concerns. The survey conducted last June found that some voters believed Juneau couldn't afford a second school, especially the annual costs of operating it. Others said the planning process had not inspired confidence, or that the district's enrollment figures were unrealistically high.

Many things have happened since last May to address these concerns. The Legislature dramatically increased funding to education, removing the prospect of teacher layoffs. The auditors determined that a second school will generate about $1 million annually in additional state operating money, enough to cover over 80 percent of the operating costs. They also concluded that Juneau will have more than enough money to operate a second school if we continue to fund education at the upper limit allowed by the state. The size of the school now being proposed has been reduced to reflect the state's more conservative enrollment projections instead of the district's. Consequently, it now qualifies for 70 percent reimbursement instead of 60 percent. Numerous open meetings have been held to present these findings and respond to public concerns.

After studying the choices carefully, both the School Board and the Assembly unanimously approved the new Valley high school, stating that "the construction and equipping of a new high school in the Mendenhall Valley is the best alternative for meeting the high school educational needs." There is no rational basis to believe they all are wrong.

The opponents are still claiming the enrollment numbers are optimistic, so the costs will be much higher than the auditors estimated. In fact, the auditors ran the numbers with current enrollment, and the operating costs were virtually unchanged because fewer teachers would be needed. And the property tax bill for construction has been reduced by 43 percent since last May.

Finally, imagine a car dealer making a limited-time offer of new cars at 70 percent off the sticker price, and even offering to pay 80 percent of the cost of gas and oil. Would anyone reject such an offer? That is essentially the offer now on the table, and Juneau voters would be foolish not to take it. The only sensible option is to vote yes on Proposition 1.

• Randy Coleman is a Juneau resident and U.S. Forest Service program and management analyst.

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