Meeting on new high school airs board-CBJ rift

Board hopes school will be open in 2006

Posted: Thursday, December 12, 2002

In the first public meeting between the two groups in months, the Juneau School Board on Wednesday presented its plan for a Mendenhall Valley high school to the Juneau Assembly's Public Works and Facilities Committee.

Despite talk from both groups about how the rift between the School Board and Assembly has been exaggerated in the press, old tensions flared, and the meeting turned argumentative.

School Board President Chuck Cohen pressed committee members to pass the plan on to the full Assembly. But committee members Dale Anderson and Ken Koelsch expressed concerns about moving too quickly, and asked for more information about the proposed 1,050-student, $60 million school in Dimond Park.

It is unclear when the plan will come before the Assembly for approval, but committee chairwoman Jeannie Johnson said the panel will continue to review it for at least one more meeting scheduled for Dec. 18. A team of city engineers also will review the plan in a work session scheduled for 3 p.m. Friday in the Assembly chambers.

"We are here to build a school and we are here to try to build it and open it before 2006," Cohen told committee members at the beginning of the meeting. "People have a lot of ideas about what is going on. It is important to have an open dialogue. No one is trying to hide any footballs here."

When the high school opens, which the School Board hopes will be in 2006, school district officials anticipate enrollment will be about 800. The school has been designed to be expandable to accommodate up to 1,500 students as population grows in Juneau.

The new school will cost about $10 million more than the original plan, the bonds for which were approved by local voters in 1999. Because of the cost increase, a new bond measure must be approved by voters. The state would reimburse part of the bonds.

Cohen said the School Board would ask the Assembly to schedule a bond vote in March and to appropriate $837,000 to cover project costs until then.

"The real key here is to move forward, not backward," Cohen said. "This community has a history of doing tremendous planning and not building. We are here to build, not plan."

Koelsch said he did not want to be hasty. Anderson concurred, noting that the Assembly had never implied that the school district was "trying to hide the football."

He also wanted it clear that despite some perceptions in the community he had heard about, the Assembly had never done anything to slow down the high school plan. Cohen responded that the School Board had made a high school plan available to the city in June.

"To rush through it and rubber-stamp something that has been done is troubling me without knowing about cost," Anderson said.

Cohen interrupted, asking if schools Superintendent Gary Bader could respond with figures. Anderson broke in.

"Can I maybe finish, Mr. Cohen?" he asked. Cohen continued to speak. Johnson struggled to get control, and asked that members continue their discussion after the meeting. She stressed that it was not productive to dwell on the past.

"I would like to see a reasonable budget," Anderson said. "I do not like the argumentative atmosphere that has already been created."

Anderson was referring to operating expenses for the proposed school, an issue that has been raised by Interim City Manager John MacKinnon. Using figures from the original high school plan, MacKinnon had calculated that the school district would be $1 million short of the funds needed to run the school. The city had asked for more recent budget figures and never received them, Anderson said.

In response to Anderson's concerns, Bader presented an updated budget at the meeting, based on the anticipated enrollment and the most-recent school design. It showed the district could afford to operate the new school, as long as the Assembly funded the schools at the maximum level allowed by state law, as the body traditionally has done.

"You have been a very generous Assembly, and I hate to see this talk in the paper about a quarrel," Bader said.

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



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