Empire editorial: Stage set for Valley high school

Posted: Sunday, November 10, 2002

Alaska voters showed strong support for education by passing Proposition C with 59 percent of the vote. In Juneau the margin was greater with 71 percent of votes cast in favor of the bonding proposal.

The measure is important to Juneau because it provides for the 60 to 70 percent debt reimbursement needed to secure funding for the proposed second high school in the Valley.

The $238.6 million funding package also includes $9 million to cover a portion of the cost of the university's fisheries research center to be constructed jointly with the NOAA facility at Lena Point

In 1999, Juneau voters approved a measure providing for a $50 million high school with state reimbursement of half the cost.

The original concept was designed to accommodate 1,200 students. Since then, the estimated cost of the new high school has risen to $60 million while the project has been scaled back for 1,050 students.

The next major step to secure the funding for the school is for the general obligation (GO) bond to be approved. Since the cost of the project has increased so much, final approval for the bond likely will rest with voters either in the next municipal election or through a special election to be called sooner.

In order for the project to move forward, however, the School Board and the Assembly must come together collaboratively and agree on the final concept for the school. The two bodies are divided on whether the cost overrun is justified.

Conservative voices on the Assembly feel that the project is over-designed and can be brought in closer to the original budget.

The School Board wants to move forward with the schematic as presented by the architect.

The more favorable reimbursement terms provided in Proposition C fairly neutralize the impact of the $10 million cost overrun on taxpayers. The $10 million increase in the size of the bond will have a bearing on how far the city can go in passing future bonds.

The city currently has a carrying capacity of up to $130 million in bonds. The city is now carrying about $30 million in bonds, with another $15 million bond package narrowly approved by voters in November. A $60 million bond for the high school brings the total to $105 million.

Still to be addressed is the gap in funds needed for annual operating expenses. The added high school will garner another $800,000 or so in state funding, but that still leaves another $1 million in annual operating expenses begging for a source.

Juneau has a long list of needs and wants, including a recreation center in the Valley, improvements to the airport, parking downtown and possible brick-and-mortar improvements to the Capitol.

Improvements to the airport can be classified as needs. The next phase of expansion, a proposed 14,000-square-foot addition to the terminal, has been forced mostly due to overcrowding and federally mandated security requirements.

The terminal and parking area are drastically in need of another $20 million in improvements.

The list of needs and wants goes on.

The Valley school project will go through another peer review soon and then must pass approval by the Assembly.

Funding is in place to scope out the recreation center project and prepare a request for proposals (RFP). This project could be funded through an increase in sales tax or through another GO bond.

The projects mentioned here are just a few of the items on the long list of wants and needs. They are all projects that will contribute greatly to the quality of life in Juneau.

This is a great opportunity for our city leaders to extend their vision out 10 years, set a time line and prioritize what can be realistically accomplished without overburdening taxpayers at any point along the way.

Don Smith



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