Joe Geldhof is a parent of two daughters who attended public schools in Juneau and a former Juneau Assembly candidate. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

Joe Geldhof is a parent of two daughters who attended public schools in Juneau and a former Juneau Assembly candidate. (Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire file photo)

My Turn: Focus on saving teacher jobs, not buildings or nostalgia, to fix school district crisis

The numbers are bad. Really bad. Even dire.

Juneau is losing population. Our school enrollment has been shrinking for decades, even as we built new schools.

Continuation of the status quo where our community maintains excess school capacity for a diminishing number of students is certain to harm our student’s education.

The decline in enrollment was ignored by Juneau’s previous school administrations and school boards who refused to apprehend demographic trends.

Having inherited a hugely problematic situation, the current school board is committed to consolidating schools. Support for these long-overdue acts warrants support from everyone in our community, and the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly.

Unfortunately, support for the inevitable is being hindered by a faction within Juneau who continue to ignore the reality of current situation.

Everyone who cares about the students in our community seeks better educational opportunities. But, a big chunk of the opposition to school closures comes from older residents clutching their yearbooks or still trying to squeeze into their varsity jackets.

Making decisions about educational opportunity should be concentrated on educational needs, not nostalgia. The hot-house narratives being spewed by geriatric graduates who identify with the Crimson Bears mantra should be subordinated to the educational needs of current and the coming generation of students in our community. Issues like having multiple sports teams and extracurricular activities or the location of the schools in which our student’s education takes place cannot drive education policy if we are serious about learning.

School consolidation and closure isn’t about spending. It’s about saving and better education.

For decades, empirical evidence illustrates the relationship between big spending and successful outcomes is not guaranteed. Cultural factors, more than spending, are the key indicator of educational success. To be sure, minimal funding for adequate educational outcomes is necessary, but the notion that unlimited budgets will lead to splendid educational outcomes has not been validated empirically.

To maximize educational opportunity, we should focus on saving teacher jobs, not buildings and begin by first consolidating the two existing high schools and at least temporarily mothballing one existing middle school.

Given the age of the newest high school in the Mendenhall Valley and the fact that at least two-thirds of our students live closer to the Valley than downtown, the school board should proceed to combine all 10th through 12th grade education in Thunder Mountain. And, at least for 2 or perhaps 3 years, a junior high school model should be adopted where all 7th through 9th grade students receive instruction at the downtown High School.

The existing middle school in Lemon Creek should be repurposed to house the school district’s alternative programs and the school district offices.

Down the trail in the not-too-distant future when school enrollments drop further (as they are by about 4% every year), the downtown high school can be successfully re-purposed to house the bureaucracy necessary to operate our local government and serve as a performing arts center. We might even consider relocating the existing underutilized downtown library on top of a parking garage to the new civic complex in the old high school. Or perhaps move the city museum to the high school library space. Additional parking for this new civic center can be easily created by demolishing the old Marie Drake building and repurposing the soccer practice field.

Juneau’s City and Borough Assembly has an important role in fulfilling a move to a better and more cost-efficient future. The assembly should work carefully and in a coordinated manner with the Juneau School District, starting with not signing a long-term lease for city offices. Repurposing existing structures that can be used for efficient government services is the best thing the assembly can do for this community. With a stagnant population, we can’t afford new buildings and we shouldn’t get locked into long-term leases for property when we have surplus property that can meet our needs.

The time to act on school consolidation and closure is long past due.

The focus should be on efficient basic service delivery for both education and local government. This has to be done according to a budget that is under control and realistic; one that includes paying off the debt inherited by the current school board and local government administration. The only way this can happen is by merging and closing schools, something that should have happened years ago.

It has to happen now.

• Joe Geldhof lives in West Juneau with Corine. The two of them raised two daughters who attended Juneau’s public school system.

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