My Turn: Juneau's growth requires new school

Posted: Sunday, October 03, 2004

We haven't built a new Juneau high school in nearly 50 years, and that one was paid for by the federal government because we were a territory way back then, when Dwight Eisenhower was president. There can't be many other American communities whose population tripled during five decades without building a new high school. We were lucky, we put so many Band-Aids on that old school, but our luck has finally run out. It's overcrowded. It has burst its seams and overflowed into Marie Drake middle school next door. Let's take a look at school growth around the country.

Broward County's school district in Florida will build a new school every month, as will Las Vegas. Egg Harbor Township, N.J., with 400 to 450 new students each year, needs to build a new school every other year, as does Cheatham County, Tenn. Springdale, Ark., must build a new school every year for its annual increase of 800 students, as will Dysart, Ariz. This is just a sampling of school districts from around the country. Some have explosive growth, some moderate, and some like Juneau have slow growth.

The point is that most communities grow. Growth means new schools. The big difference between these communities and Juneau is that taxpayers in the Lower 48 pay for 100 percent of new school construction, and that's why their property taxes are unbearable. We have greatly exceeded the capacity of our high school. It is absurd to believe that Juneau is going to stop growing, in the long-term, for the first time in 125 years. We have had decade-by-decade continuous growth since 1880. While student populations will temporarily wax and wane, Juneau will continue to grow. We need this new high school now and will desperately need it in the next few decades.

If we vote down Proposition 1 and continue to grow (Juneau has always grown and if you've lived here long you know that is a fact) we taxpayers will probably have to pony up somewhere between $60 million to $100 million in a few years for a new high school. Will the price of steel and wood continue to skyrocket? We were given the last high school for free. We can get this one for 30 percent of the cost if we act now. Since the downtown high school was built Juneau's population as a whole has more than tripled while the Valley population has quadrupled.

All four Valley precincts voted in favor of the new school in the last election. It is wrong for the rest of the borough to deny Valley residents the school that they obviously desire.

Think of what your tax bill will be in five years if we pay 100 percent of the next high school. If you are undecided you'd better talk to your friends in the Lower 48 and find out what they pay in property taxes. That's property taxes in the real world where people don't get schools built for them. People here seem to be living in a dream world where future property taxes go down and a school has infinite capacity.

For educational and community reasons we should have smaller schools. I hear people say that we should have smaller classes before we build more buildings. We couldn't have smaller classes right now because there is no place to put them.

A new high school is estimated to cost taxpayers $51 per $100,000 for 15 years. But if we are foolish enough to wait until we have to pay for 100 percent of the school then the burden on Juneau taxpayers will be a whopping $170 per $100,000 (assuming the price of building materials and labor do not go up). If we have a spurt in population in the next five or 10 years, which is possible, are we prepared to pay for 100 percent of a new high school and 100 percent of a new middle school all at the same time? That 30 percent sure looks good to me and the economic stimulus will be great for Juneau. Let's start planning for the future by voting yes on Proposition 1.

• Richard Wood is self-employed and has a son in Juneau-Douglas High School.

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