District to present Valley HS plans

Meeting is one of the few recent discussions between city, school district over the new high school

Posted: Tuesday, December 10, 2002

The Juneau Assembly Public Works and Facilities Committee on Wednesday will hear the school district's plan for a Mendenhall Valley High School.

The meeting starts at noon in the Assembly chambers.

The plan, which was approved by the Juneau School Board last month, must be approved by the Public Works and Facilities Committee and the full Assembly before the school can be built.

Juneau voters also will have to re-approve local bonds for the school's construction, first approved in 1999, because its cost has increased from $50 million to $60 million, and the scope has decreased from a 1,200-student school to one for 1,050 students. The state would reimburse part of the cost.

Wednesday's meeting will be one of the few formal discussions between the city and the school district over the new high school since communication broke down last spring. The School Board withdrew from a city-schools planning team because the Assembly voted to proceed with the Juneau-Douglas High School renovation over the School Board's objection.

The School Board had wanted to build a new high school first, to alleviate overcrowding, before renovating JDHS.

The relationship between the bodies remains tense over the new high school plan, and the city and school district could be far apart on some issues.

"I want the high school built, but it is premature to assume that the plans just submitted to us to review is the perfect answer," said Assembly member Dale Anderson.

Interim City Manager John MacKinnon has voiced serious concern over the operating costs of the proposed high school, saying the district has a chronic problem of underestimating project costs.

Operating costs normally are covered by a combination of city and state funds, MacKinnon said. MacKinnon estimates that running the school and hiring additional staff will cost about $1.8 million annually. About $800,000 of that would be contributed by the state. The city now contributes the most it can under state law to Juneau schools. MacKinnon anticipates the district will be $1 million short.

"The school district hasn't given any indication to how they could afford to operate a new school," MacKinnon said. "It is kind of like budgeting on a prayer."

Schools Superintendent Gary Bader took issue with MacKinnon's numbers, saying there wasn't a need for "hand-wringing" over operating costs.

MacKinnon's $1.8 million figure is based on a higher enrollment than the new school will have, Bader said. He said each school will have about 800 students, or roughly half the number of the students now attending JDHS. Because the total high school enrollment won't increase much, the district won't have to hire many new staff, he said. Bader estimates that costs for electricity, heat, custodial service and insurance at the new high school will total about $460,000, well under the state's $800,000 contribution, he said.

"This is doable in my judgment by any school administrator who wants to work within his budget," Bader said.

Bader said Juneau needed to act quickly to approve the high school project because a delay would cause its construction cost to increase further.

The passage in November of the statewide general obligation bonds for rural school construction triggered increased state reimbursement for urban school projects bonded locally. In response, many districts in the state are proposing school-construction plans, Bader said.

"We don't want to be behind other projects in Southeast looking for contractors to bid on our work," Bader said.

There will be at least two Public Works and Facilities Committee meetings to review the high school plan, said committee chairwoman Jeannie Johnson.

The district will present its plan on Wednesday, and a team of engineers, architects and city administrators will respond at a noon meeting on Dec. 18. There will be 10 minutes for public comment at the meetings.

Johnson stressed that the committee was not ready to make any decisions regarding the plan, and discouraged "lobby-type" comments.

"We are just beginning the fact-finding so we can make a wise and informed decision for our tax dollars," Johnson said.

Julia O'Malley can be reached at jomalley@juneauempire.com.

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