Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé students hold up signs during a rally along Egan Drive on Tuesday afternoon protesting a proposal to consolidate all local students in grades 10-12 at Thunder Mountain High School to help deal with the Juneau School District’s financial crisis. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé students hold up signs during a rally along Egan Drive on Tuesday afternoon protesting a proposal to consolidate all local students in grades 10-12 at Thunder Mountain High School to help deal with the Juneau School District’s financial crisis. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

JDHS students, teachers rally to keep grades 9-12 at downtown school if consolidation occurs

District’s proposed move to TMHS would result in loss of vocational facilities, ninth-grade students.

Siena Farr was holding a handmade sign asking “what if I want to be an underwater welder,” which to passing motorists might have seemed like an odd message of protest for a proposed consolidation of Juneau’s two high schools to help solve the school’s district’s financial crisis.

But the sophomore at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé, standing along the side of Egan Drive on Tuesday afternoon with dozens of peers and teachers, said she wants residents — and policymakers — to be thinking about the opportunities that will be lost if facilities unique to her school are no longer available.

“At JD we have trade classes and so many people, instead of going to college, they decide to go into the trades,” she said. Also, the University of Alaska Southeast’s Technical Education Center is across the street “and it’s a huge part of the lessons for me right over there in that UA building. That’s where they train people to become things like underwater welders.”

Tuesday’s demonstration came after the Juneau Board of Education on Saturday opted to direct their focus on a single consolidation plan of many proposed in recent weeks, which would place all students in grades 10-12 at the newer and smaller Thunder Mountain High School, while putting grades 7-9 and special programs at JDHS.

Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé students carry signs along Egan Drive at the beginning of a rally Tuesday afternoon protesting a proposal to consolidate all local students in grades 10-12 at Thunder Mountain High School. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé students carry signs along Egan Drive at the beginning of a rally Tuesday afternoon protesting a proposal to consolidate all local students in grades 10-12 at Thunder Mountain High School. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Currently students in grades 9-12 are at the two high schools, grades 6-8 are at the two middle schools and grades K-5 at elementary schools. Because TMHS isn’t big enough to hold all current high school students, the school alignments would be shifted to K-6 for elementary, 7-9 for middle school and 10-12 for high school.

[A plan moving forward: Consolidating grades 7-9 and special programs at JDHS, 10-12 at TMHS]

That proposal emerged after district officials heard protests during the past few weeks from TMHS students and teachers that, among other things, JDHS has inadequate parking for students who drive. Among the signs at Tuesday’s rally was one reading “my education is not worth your parking space.”

“I agree that TM has better parking and much better amenities,” said Maggie Higgins, a JDHS senior who was holding the sign. “And it is a nicer school. But I think the main issue is it can’t hold all the students. Its capacity is far lower than JD — JD was built to be the only high school. And if it has to go down to one I think it’s better to prioritize putting kids in classrooms.”

Keeping the current 9-12 grade high school structure was the biggest issue for Higgins and many others participating in the rally.

“That’s how it is nationally,” she said. “And I think that putting ninth graders in middle school would disrupt not only applying for colleges, but also just socially messing things up.”

The problem from the district’s point of view is big changes need to be made — quickly. Officials are facing a March 15 deadline to submit a plan that resolves a nearly $10 million deficit in a roughly $77 million operating budget just for the coming school year, along with needing to resolve a nearly $8 million deficit for the current fiscal year ending June 30 and similarly high multimillion deficits in future years without major permanent changes.

Dozens of students, teachers and supporters of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé participate in a rally Tuesday afternoon along Egan Drive to protest a proposal consolidating all local students in grades 10-12 at Thunder Mountain High School. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Dozens of students, teachers and supporters of Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé participate in a rally Tuesday afternoon along Egan Drive to protest a proposal consolidating all local students in grades 10-12 at Thunder Mountain High School. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The City and Borough of Juneau appears ready to help the district out of its crisis for this year by taking over $3.9 million in shared costs and providing an interest-free $4 million loan to be paid back within five years. The city on Tuesday also issued an updated overview of the budget crisis with a summary of the plan being considered, links to online documents and other information, and noting the school board will further review the budget at a meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, and a special Juneau Assembly meeting is scheduled at 11:45 a.m. Friday to introduce ordinances for the loan and taking over shared costs.

District administrators have emphasized that, even with the city’s help, it is not possible to resolve deficits in future years without drastic measures since 90% of the operating budget is for staff, and consolidating schools will both fill schools closer to capacity while eliminating some duplicate positions.

As such, a protest sign reading “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” seemed at odds with the district’s situation. But it’s referring to how “traditionally we’ve had a 9-12 system at the school, so I think it’s really just like ‘why are you trying to reinvent the wheel?’” said Edward Hu, a senior who lives in the Mendenhall Valley, but opts to make the longer trip to attend JDHS.

Beyond that, Hu said he understands there are going to have to be some big and unwelcome changes due to the scale of the budget crisis, such as closing both middle schools and consolidating the students in one of the two high schools.

“It’s not like it’s OK, per se, but it’s the best option we should do,” he said, adding “Ultimately the school board has to make some tough decisions. There’s no doubt about that. So it’s just what’s best for us as the students, and what provides the most opportunities and is the best for most people.”

• Contact Mark Sabbatini at mark.sabbatini@juneauempire.com or (907) 957-2306.

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