Empire editorial: Revamped school plan deserves voters' approval

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 2004

Voters will get their fourth - and perhaps final - chance on Tuesday to endorse building a second high school at Dimond Park in the Mendenhall Valley. The school project has traveled a bumpy road, with voters slamming the brakes on the project at a special election this spring. But this time, Juneau citizens need to give the OK and let planning of a second school roll ahead.

What's changed since the last election? Among other developments, the Juneau School District has looked more carefully at the possibility of renovating the Marie Drake building to make room for students spilling out of Juneau-Douglas High School. But more research this summer confirmed that using Marie Drake for high school overflow would cost the city more than running a new school because the state will reimburse more of the costs for two schools than it will for one.

JDHS continues to be over capacity, and with Marie Drake canceled out as an option, that leaves the city with a strong need for a new campus. Part of the debate before the last election centered around school enrollment and whether the district had inflated classroom projections to justify the size of the school. Since then, the district has scaled back the campus so that it will serve 840 students, instead of 1,070 under the former plan. Yet the hallways and cafeteria will be sized so that the school could eventually accommodate 1,012, if enrollment grows.

The cost of the new campus and whether the city can pay for its operations were at the top of the list of voters' concerns. With the reduction in school size, the district has trimmed $9 million off the construction price tag. The new school now will cost about $54 million. The state also will reimburse 70 percent of the building costs, instead of 60 percent as before, because the new project is now sized for enrollment projections five years after the school opens.

In late May, the Alaska Legislature increased state funding for education by $82 million, wiping out impending teacher layoffs in Juneau schools. No one can predict what future legislatures will do, but the boost in funding was a welcome sign that the state is committed to education, even during tight fiscal times.

This time around, the school district has created a more detailed plan of the new school's curriculum, addressing another concern of critics of the previous proposal.

Two aspects of the planning process since the last election are disappointing. One is that proponents of the new school could think much more creatively about how to make a second school complement JDHS programs and maximize educational opportunities. The other disappointment is that many of those who criticized a second school in May dropped out of planning discussions after they helped derail the project. One excuse has been burnout from the political process, but it's a lame one considering that Juneau students' education is at stake and the Juneau School Board has been laboring over a second high school for years.

The window of opportunity for the current level of state funding will close Dec. 31. Many feared that by halting the school project in the last election, the district would not have time to come up with a new plan and take advantage of the state's reimbursement plan.

Instead the district has worked diligently to revise the proposal and deal with many of the concerns about a second high school. It's time for Juneau voters to get behind the project and push it ahead.

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