Funds for high school ranked low by state

Posted: Sunday, November 12, 2000

The proposed high school at Dimond Park is ranked 43rd on a state priority list for school construction grants, behind $337 million in other requests for state funds. Renovations to Juneau-Douglas High School are ranked 12th on a separate list of major maintenance grants.

Schools Superintendent Gary Bader told the Juneau School Board last week it was too early to say whether the district would contest its placement on the lists.

It's not certain how important the rankings are because the Legislature doesn't necessarily follow them in authorizing state funds. Gov. Tony Knowles has introduced failed bills for the past three years to fund a grant program that would follow the lists' rankings.

Legislators last year authorized some outright grants to improve several rural schools, taking most projects from the top of the lists. But lawmakers also offered partial debt reimbursement to school districts that would bond for projects, without regard to the lists' rankings or even specifying the projects.

Juneau benefited last session when the Legislature authorized $7.7 million in local school repairs with 70 percent reimbursement from the state. But Juneau's big desire, last year and this year, is money to build a new high school and fix up JDHS.

Local voters in October 1999 approved $50 million in bonds for a new, 1,200-student high school and $13 million to renovate JDHS, which also would serve 1,200 students. But construction is contingent on getting some state funds.

Mayor Sally Smith said the Juneau Assembly is still working on its list of priorities for this year, including what it will lobby the Legislature for. "I can't imagine that (a new high school) won't be at the top or very near the top."

Again this year, the Juneau School District has asked for a grant or partial debt reimbursement of $49.9 million for the design, construction and furnishing cost of the proposed high school.

One value of the grant list, whether it is used in a funding bill or not, is that it gives school districts a chance to see if their projects are eligible for state funds, said Eddy Jeans, the state Department of Education school finance manager. The state reviews the need for more school space or for school renovations.

The Department of Education has said only $41.3 million of the proposed Juneau high school is eligible for state funds because the agency expects lower future enrollments than the school district does. That means the state is willing to pay a share of most, but not all, of the school's space.

JDHS has about 1,760 students, including 92 housed separately at the alternative high school and others who take some classes in the Marie Drake building. The total is similar to the enrollments last year and the year before.

The school district estimates there will be 2,375 high school students by fall 2008. But the Department of Education thinks the number will be 2,223, said agency architect Tim Mearig.

Additional high-schoolers would have to come either from current elementary students, where growth is flat or declining, or from families moving into the community, he said.

"There really isn't enough evidence to suggest that Juneau as a community is going to have a strong enough influx of population" for 4 percent growth in high schools on a recurring basis, Mearig said.

The school district argued in its application that JDHS gains students who were educated at home or in private schools in their earlier grades, and it picks up students from families who move here so their kids can go to a larger high school. Lowering the drop-out rate also would add to student numbers, the district said.

At a reimbursement rate of 70 percent, which is typical of recent years, the state's share of the eligible $41.3 million would be $28.9 million. That's 58 percent of the total $49.9 million design, construction and furnishing cost.

The Department of Education considers all of the $13 million JDHS renovation to be eligible for state funds. At a 70 percent rate, the state would cover $9 million.

The dollar amounts refer only to the design and construction costs, which would be paid by the city bonds' principal. That understates the real state contribution in a debt reimbursement program because the state also would pay a share of the city's interest payments on the bonds.

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