Empire editorial: High school delays should not be secret

Posted: Sunday, November 25, 2007

Why in the world is the city of Juneau agreeing to pay Coogan Construction as much as $700,000 to speed up completion of Thunder Mountain High School when the city and the Juneau School District have known since last May the project is at least two months behind?

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What's more, how in the world could the Juneau School Board not have known about the delays until last week?

The voters who last June approved $17 million in general obligation bonds for timely completion of the high school should be furious that the city, on behalf of the district, has approved financial incentives for Coogan Construction when they were assured that passage of the bonds package would make for a finished school as of August 2008.

A couple of issues arise from this matter, the most important being the public's lack of confidence in the school district and the district's lack of communication with the School Board and the community. School Board President Andi Story should be furious that she's just now learning of the delays the district has been aware of for six months. Superintendent Peggy Cowan has said there's no particular reason the board wasn't previously notified of the delays and the $700,0000 contingency plan, and that seems rather ridiculous.

If Cowan recently told School Board member Margo Waring the new high school will be completed on time, as Waring says she did, then Cowan knew something the rest of us didn't. If Cowan knew that, why didn't her School Board know that? Similarly, how did Mark Choate, a member of the School Board's facilities committee, not know of the delays? Where's the sense of responsibility and accountability here, especially on Cowan's part?

Even at the time of June's municipal bond election, Juneau voters were feeling a little duped by the school district and the new high school project. Then, voters felt that because of a 70 percent reimbursement from the state, they had no choice but to approve the bonds that would pay for an auditorium, an artificial-turf field and running track, and furnishing the school with necessary items such as desks, computers, library books, lab equipment and musical instruments.

Back in June the additional costs for the high school weren't because of much higher construction costs but because of modifications, after the fact, to the original plans. Many voters at that time succumbed to a feeling that the project might never really end.

The incentive package that's been crafted for Coogan Construction begs this question: If the company gets $200,000 now to help kick start progress, and another $500,000 for making real and substantial progress by Aug. 1, 2008, (that amount would drop to $375,000 if the deadline is pushed back to September), would the incentives have to be even greater if, for some reason, it looked as though the school couldn't be completed until two or three months later than August '08? If further delays and/or costs ensue, will the School Board know about them as city and district officials know about them?

The real issue here isn't delays associated with at least two months of unusually harsh weather last winter. That kind of thing is to be expected here in Southeast. It's much more about how such an important and big-ticket public project, controversial from its inception, is being handled as if to keep it from public scrutiny.

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