Empire editorial: Build unneeded wing later to make way for an auditorium

Posted: Sunday, December 11, 2005

Clarification 12/9/2005: Phases of auditorium construction

for the future Dimond Park high school will be the only alternates

considered when contractors bids are opened in the spring. A story

in Fridays Empire, as well as a Sunday editorial, listed other facets

of the schools construction that would be bid on as possible extras beyond

the basic building specifications. Those items were considered as alternates,

but the team planning the future high school ultimately decided to list only

phases of auditorium construction as alternates on bid specifications that

will be advertised in February.

Some supporters of a second high school in the Mendenhall Valley are feeling betrayed. The auditorium that swung their votes in favor of the Dimond Park project now has an uncertain fate.

Juneau School District officials insist the auditorium is still part of the $38 million project, but it may not be completed right away because swelling costs have left construction funds about $1 million short. Other features, such as a full kitchen, fitness room, band room and computer room, also may not be built because of cost overruns.

The debate about whether to build an auditorium underscores a reality that some critics of the second school knew all along: This project is not just about educating high schoolers; it's about providing public facilities, such as a venue for the arts, to valley residents. Some jumped on the second-school bandwagon for reasons beyond education, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. The school won passage because it offered many things to many different voters.

The shortness of funds, however, could pit school supporters against each other as they fight for the programs they hold dear. But the debate over the school's construction should not turn into a battle between sports fans and arts aficionados or supporters of the band and choir.

Rather, the school district should take a serious look at one suggestion that could prevent facilities for various activities from being cut or delayed. That suggestion is to build just a shell for all or part of one classroom wing and leave that space unfinished until enrollment warrants it. The second high school is designed for about 840 students, but will not come close to filling that capacity immediately.

One possibility is that when the school opens in 2008, the student bodies are not evenly split between Juneau-Douglas High School and the valley school. A higher proportion of students could be kept at the downtown campus in the first few years, so that the valley school is able to keep the extra features that will make its programs rich.

Delaying completion of unneeded classrooms could allow the auditorium to be built in its entirety right away. Education remains the top priority for the new school, but there's no point in postponing completion of an auditorium that could serve the whole community while freshly built classrooms sit empty.

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