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My Turn: City needs a time out and realistic date for new school

Posted: Thursday, October 16, 2003

Call it a school recess, time out, fall break. Call it whatever you want; just call it! Time out. Acknowledge that the second high school might not be opened by August of 2006 - the timeline is too ambitious and doesn't allow for the inevitable bumps and hiccups that occur when you don't live in a perfect world and when you are thousands of miles away from your suppliers.

With three new Assembly members and four new School Board members, now is an opportune time for a fresh community dialogue on the building budget (did the voters really mean $60.8 million) and size (1,500 core) of the new high school along with other educational issues.

In 1999 the School District estimated conservatively that our high school population would grow by 4 percent annually. Using the School District (Feb. 8, 1999) chart, our high school enrollment should be at 2,107 this year and 2,311 in 2006. High school enrollment is declining. Book enrollment for high school is at 1,706. Seventy-eight of the 1,706 are housed at Yaakoos. The actual average daily membership (ADM) on the Juneau-Douglas High School campus is 1,579. Districtwide the school population has also been declining since the peak of 5,701 students in 1999. There were 5,456 students in Juneau schools in January of 2003. The premises that we based our votes on in 1999 have changed. Why build a new high school with a core for 1,500 if the community voted for two smaller schools (700-900)? If the high school population continues to decline (ADM 1,579 now), will the plan be to close JDHS and send everyone to the new valley school? In the anticipated operating budget (published Dec. 18, 2002) for the new high school approximately $800,000 in additional state revenue was identified for a second high school. But utilities and custodial services alone eat up much of that. Administrators, nurses and librarians are listed under discretionary expenses. Additional teachers aren't listed. How do we operate two high schools, pay our staff adequately, and deliver excellent curricular and extra-curricular programs with declining enrollment?

Part of the reasoning for adding $1.628 million to the $60.8 million new high school Monday was that it was a "loan" to JDHS. Not true. In 1999, $3 million in the bond proposal was set aside to start up the design of JDHS renovation, the new high school, and to acquire and level the Alaska Marine Highway (AMH) building - roughly $1 million to each project. All of the $3 million in revenue and expenses was kept as a separate line item in an account called the New High School. It was thought in 1999 that the new high school would be built first. Funding for JDHS renovation, however, came though the Alaska State Legislature first. Plans were changed. In October of 2001 voters split the two projects. In March of 2002 the Assembly transferred $228,000 of old School District capital improvement monies that predated 1999 and "loaned" $1.4 million to JDHS renovation. What isn't included in the "loan" information is that in April and May of 2002 that $1,926,888 of expenses was also transferred out of New High School account to the JDHS renovation (CBJ engineering budget sheet from the project team on April 30, 2002). The transfer revenue and the expenses rightfully belong in the JDHS account. The transfer was not a loan.

Each vote - 1999, 2001 and 2003 - set new guidelines. There were more wants and needs identified this summer for JDHS than there was money available to fund them. Leave the money at JDHS and fund as many worthwhile projects as possible. Wasn't the idea to treat each school as evenly as possible? What about upgrading classrooms in Marie Drake and connecting JDHS and Drake if there is extra money?

The rush to an 2006 opening for the new high school seems to be the driving force for education in Juneau right now. Time out. Set a realistic date for opening (2007?) a second high school, deal with getting a fair contract for Juneau's teachers now, lobby for a better funding mechanism for education, complete JDHS with the funds that are available for it now, reexamine if supersizing the new high school goes against the idea of two smaller schools and determine if the voters really meant $60.8 million last June.

• Ken Koelsch is a retired Juneau teacher and Assembly member.



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