The Juneau Board of Education debates a school district consolidation plan after midnight Wednesday, near the end of an eight-hour meeting at the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé auditorium. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The Juneau Board of Education debates a school district consolidation plan after midnight Wednesday, near the end of an eight-hour meeting at the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé auditorium. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

School board sticks with consolidation plan for one high school after eight-hour debate of two-school alternative

Claims of plan for two grade 8-12 schools based on faulty and incomplete data, district leaders say.

Proceeding with a consolidation plan resulting in one high school and one middle school got a 5-2 vote of approval by the Juneau Board of Education shortly after midnight Wednesday, after members met for eight hours to consider a last-minute alternative for two high schools for students in grades 8-12 that school district leaders said is based on inaccurate and incomplete information.

The meeting in the Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé auditorium allowed several dozen residents to testify about options for keeping both local high schools open, which many argued the school board has ignored. But the board is now expected to approve a budget implementing the existing consolidation plan at a special meeting at 5:30 p.m. Thursday at JDHS.

Maisey Mar, a student at Floyd Dryden Middle School, testifies in favor of a consolidation plan that would combine both local middle schools into Thunder Mountain High School during a Juneau Board of Education meeting Tuesday at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Maisey Mar, a student at Floyd Dryden Middle School, testifies in favor of a consolidation plan that would combine both local middle schools into Thunder Mountain High School during a Juneau Board of Education meeting Tuesday at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The 8-12 model would be significantly more costly than the single high school plan, contrary to the claim by advocates it would improve the district’s financial situation, said Juneau School District Frank Hauser. He, other district staff and some board members also noted a presentation arguing in favor of the proposal was based on data received only hours earlier that had no analysis of many of the potential impacts.

“I am scared if we go down this road,” said Will Muldoon, chair of the board’s Finance Committee, noting he was in many of the district’s specialized programs as a student. “I cannot risk those programs on shaky numbers, it scares me to go there. I think that right now we have a budget from the administration that is balanced.”

Furthermore, the board is facing a Friday deadline to submit a budget for next year to the Juneau Assembly. School board members already wary about being forced into coming up with a drastic restructuring plan during the past two months after a massive budget gap was revealed were mostly unwilling to consider a radical change of direction — especially based on faulty data — two days before their final budget vote.

The existing consolidation plan, meant to remedy a nearly $10 million deficit in a roughly $80 million annual operating budget, puts students grades 9-12 at JDHS, grades 7-8 and the HomeBRIDGE program at Thunder Mountain High School, and adds sixth-graders to the current K-5 elementary school system. It also closes the district’s administration building, the Marie Drake Building and Floyd Dryden Middle School, returning control to the City and Borough that owns them.

The proposal debated during a school board work session and meeting starting at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday put students in grades 8-12 at JDHS and TMHS, and grades 6-7 at Floyd Dryden Middle School. It would also close the administrative and Marie Drake buildings, but close one of two elementary schools in the Mendenhall Valley rather than Floyd Dryden.

Amber Frommherz, a Juneau Board of Education member, presents her proposal for two local schools for students in grades 8-12 during a meeting Tuesday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Amber Frommherz, a Juneau Board of Education member, presents her proposal for two local schools for students in grades 8-12 during a meeting Tuesday evening at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

The new proposal was offered by board member Amber Frommherz after she prevailed in a 4-3 vote last Thursday to consider amendments to the consolidation plan approved by the board Feb. 23, in the wake of weeks of public testimony from residents saying they prefer Juneau keep two high schools. Those comments generally referred to a proposal putting students in grades 7-12 in two high schools, but concerns expressed about that plan resulted in Fromherz adjusting the grade levels and other parameters.

“I acknowledge all of our effort and time that we have into this so far,” she said while presenting the plan during the meeting. “However, through my public feedback process I have to go back and I had to check everything again…I believe the timing of events tonight will only assure us that we did our best to meet the items in board policy development — in a nutshell, to be responsible to taxpayers to choose the best site for closure.”

The board, after hearing Hauser and others explain flaws in Frommherz’s data, voted to indefinitely postpone consideration of her proposal. Frommherz said after the meeting that, while she doesn’t expect the board to resume discussion of the proposal before passing the budget Thursday, one of her key goals — “to be a voice” for people wanting to see the two-school option scrutinized by the board — was achieved.

A key element of Frommherz’s argument in favor of the 8-12 model is it would result in more state funding for the district, based on a formula that provides more funding to smaller schools than larger ones. But a subsequent spreadsheet presented by Lisa Pearce, the district’s finance officer, states while the 8-12 model adds about $350,000 to the $26.4 million in such funds in the existing consolidation next year, it also has $1.2 million more in costs than the one approved by the district.

For instance, while Frommherz argued her plan saved comparable costs to the existing plan because both close three buildings, Pearce’s data shows closing a middle school in the default plan saves hundreds of thousands of dollars more than closing an elementary school in Frommherz’s plan.

The 8-12 model would continue to cost more during subsequent years, according to Pearce.

However, many supporters of Frommherz’s effort to keep two high schools open said their motives go beyond what balances the district’s books for the coming year, or even several years. They argued Juneau’s two high schools have distinct cultures, students do better in smaller schools, the consolidation will mean fewer sports teams and similar opportunities, and there could be wider economic impacts on Juneau due both to families opting out of public schools and hosting fewer events such as sports tournaments.

Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska testifies in favor of keeping two local high schools open for students in grades 8-12 during a Juneau Board of Education meeting Tuesday at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska testifies in favor of keeping two local high schools open for students in grades 8-12 during a Juneau Board of Education meeting Tuesday at Juneau-Douglas High School: Yadaa.at Kalé. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire)

“If you want to just talk about the bottom line and what is best for our kids, it is keeping two high schools open and making sure that we’re making informed decisions and not rolling our eyes and talking down to people when you’re there representing your community,” said Richard Chalyee Éesh Peterson, president of The Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska. “Healthy schools make for healthy communities. If we don’t have healthy communities — you think you’re seeing a strong outmigration now, it’s only going to get worse.”

Offering a countering argument were several educators who said combining grades 7-12 or 8-12 into one school would mean the lower grades could be shut out of things such as organized sports because high school-level teams would be using them full-time.

“I don’t know how we would do seventh- and eighth-grade activities and competitions, and then schedule those for high school students,” said JDHS Principal Paula Casperson. While the existing consolidation will mean more students at JDHS “it was less difficult for me to envision large groups of kids if it was just high school kids in that space.”

Hauser said only 1.4% of Alaska’s schools are for grade 7-12 students and have an average enrollment of 152 students, so establishing two such schools in Juneau that would have an average of 818 students would be a “local and statewide experiment.” An 8-12 is even rarer, he said, used in only one school in Alaska that has 182 students.

“Combining two high schools is not an experiment,” he said.

The lengthy debate about the 8-12 option occurred because of the board’s 4-3 vote last Thursday, but two of those members opted to stick with the current plan during the post-midnight vote Wednesday. One was Muldoon, the other was David Noon — who has expressed numerous reservations about the existing consolidation plan and reiterated during the meeting he would have preferred a more thorough examination of options, including possibly bringing in outside experts.

Voting against postponing consideration of the 8-12 plan were Frommherz and Britteny Cioni-Haywood.

The consolidation debate has resulted in numerous hostile exchanges in recent weeks, with some residents accusing board members of illegal actions or deliberately withholding information from the public. Some board members, in turn, have accused supporters of keeping two high schools of using bullying tactics or questioned the integrity of previous actions by district officials in questioning how the crisis occurred.

But Muldoon, as the meeting prepared to adjourn at about 12:35 a.m. Wednesday, said the intensive public process has involved a lot of effort by people trying to come to a workable solution for the crisis.

“For the large majority of this undertaking it has been very, very difficult, but at the same time I’m proud of this community,” he said. “Most people have conducted themselves really well — students, parents, the community at large — and it’s been a long day, but when we all go home tonight we’ll all sleep in the same town and I think we should all be mindful of that.”

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

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