Juneau School District administrators and board members listen to a presentation about the district’s multi-million deficit during a Jan. 9 meeting. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

Juneau School District administrators and board members listen to a presentation about the district’s multi-million deficit during a Jan. 9 meeting. (Mark Sabbatini / Juneau Empire file photo)

My Turn: School board recall not a cure for ‘failure to thrive’

Decline happens over time. Kinda like the way we gain weight and let our credit cards get out of control. If we don’t pay attention, little stuff balloons into big stuff.

The Juneau School District’s (JSD) enrollment peaked in 1999 with 5,701 students. Twenty-five years later enrollment sits at 4,082. The 2034 projection is 2,798.

In 35 years, this city of 31,000 souls will have lost just over 3,000 students.

One might liken the decline to “failure to thrive,” a medical diagnosis “based on growth parameters that show consistent decrease in growth velocity over time.” (Medscape.com)

Losing 3,000 students sure seems like an awful lot of failure.

Housing prices and availability, linked to demographic and market changes, and the fact that the City and Borough of Juneau (CBJ) has been awash in property and sales tax cash have masked Juneau’s anemic population growth.

Juneau’s “failure to thrive” symptoms began presenting 25 years ago when some citizens noticed the trending enrollment decline and resisted building a second high school. But the school board and building boosters persisted. After a failed bond issue in 1998, and more than one trip to the ballot box for additional funding, the valley high school was ultimately approved.

Sometimes, even if you build it, they don’t come.

Between 1998 and August 2008 when Thunder Mountain High School opened, the JSD lost over 861 students. Were school board and Assembly members asleep?

Andi Story was elected to the school board in 2003 when Juneau was down 362 students from its 1999 enrollment peak. Worrisome as the trend was, she still pushed voters hard to approve second high school bond issues in 2003 and 2004.

During Story’s 15-year stint on the Juneau school board, the JSD lost 862 students, yet added another building to the inventory for taxpayers to support.

During Brian Holst’s nine years on the JSD school board, including five as president, Juneau lost 669 students. For the past 16 years, Holst has been the executive director of the Juneau Economic Development Council (JEDC). He’s highly compensated to presumably bring stabilizing, middle-class jobs to Juneau — you know, families with kids to fill up those school buildings.

President Holst led the school board in June 2017 when a comprehensive Juneau School District facility master plan was delivered to the CBJ and the Juneau Board of Education. The plan flagged JSD’s enrollment decline and offered potential building consolidation scenarios.

Holst and his board (including Andi Story) neglected to warn the public of even a faint concern about the falling student population and advisability of housing students more efficiently.

In 2018, Juneau voters promoted Story to the state Legislature. Juneau excels at not paying attention.

The bronze plaque at Thunder Mountain High School memorializes other demography-deniers, including the then-mayor, who was fine with building an unnecessary school but not a road.

Now, seven years after that June 2017 report, two of the suggested school closure interventions — consolidating two middle schools and two high schools — are finally being enacted by a fiscally responsible and competent school board.

The current board evaluated several options to resolve its fiscal and continuing demographic problems. The school closure/consolidation plan going forward was not my preferred choice, but I’m relieved the school board is doing the job its predecessors failed to do.

It’s wrong that two currently serving JSD school board members are being targeted for recall for the equivalent of an obviously critical (albeit painful) medical intervention.

I empathize with Thunder Mountain High School families who spent the past 15 years building a community around the valley high school. It could have worked out had Juneau gotten serious about actual economic development. Absent that, past JSD administrators and school boards might have better managed their affairs and communicated reality, not fantasy, to the public.

School enrollment predictions and our aging population are the clearest indicators of where Juneau is headed if we don’t learn from the political malpractice of the past.

Holding our Assembly accountable for every dime of its $440 million budget, including $440,000 to JEDC and millions in discretionary grants, is a good place to start paying attention.

Recalling current school board members is divisive, counterproductive and cures nothing.

• Paulette Simpson is a Douglas resident.

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