Joe Geldhof: Juneau school enrollment has been shrinking for decades. Status quo is not going to solve our budget problem

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Thunder Mountain High School in Juneau.

By JOE GELDHOF

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.

24 COMMENTS

  1. The faction which represents the biggest obstacle is the school bureaucracy. It’s too big, too well funded, and affects too many families.

    They aren’t gonna see reason until the system collapses.

    • I don’t have any children. I’m 56. No way I would send my children to public school if I could afford the time it takes for home schooling. Set aside the indoc kids are exposed too, home schooling has way too many benefits that I wouldn’t/couldn’t ignore. Home schooled kids are entering college with their GE already covered because their parents had them enrolled online as 16/17 year olds. That’s an entire year of tuition shaved. The savings alone make it attractive.

  2. I don’t believe the idea that Juneau is shrinking. There’s a ever present housing shortage and we have huge condo complexes going up all over. We have homes being built out the road now going past Lena Cove. What’s happening is that parents are finding alternate means for their children’s education. We have many good teachers here, but we also have a lot of bad eggs which spoils the bunch.

    • Jim: Juneau has lost population since the last census. Not a huge loss but a decrease, for sure.
      More importantly, we are a population still aging with a rapidly diminishing school population. It’s also instructive to look at Juneau’s population in terms of full-time equivalent numbers. A lot of people in Juneau live part-time down south. There’s nothing wrong with that or the phenomenon where seasonal workers live in Juneau during the tourist season. The point is the actual number of full-time residents who are most likely to live in Juneau and have school age children is much reduced from the past.
      It’s pretty clear Juneau shouldn’t have built a second high school back in the day based on demographics that were obvious and discussed back then. But we did build anyway. Now, we have to manage our way out of an obvious rugged situation. And, we can’t afford or need a new city hall.
      The answer is to close and repurpose existing facilities. That’s what mature societies do.
      We’ll see how mature Juneau is in the coming weeks. The school district leaders seem to have a bead on what obviously need to be done. Whether the CBJ Assembly can grasp the need to close and consolidate is an open question.
      Time will tell

      • Joe, Perhaps Juneau could import a gazillion Gaza Strippers? They seem to have the ability to produce children. I envision Juneau’s schools getting filled up rather quickly utilizing such a program, might help the soccer program too…
        I’ll bet that Biden would cough up 60 billion or so to make it happen, especially since he has abandoned any hope of getting the Jewish vote.

      • The THMS would have filled the bill just fine if we weren’t so stupid as to thumb our noses at Echo Bay’s attempts to re-open the world’s one-time most productive gold mine, the AJ. Juneau citizens are the authors of their own local economic demise.

      • Joe, the problem is multivariant. You are leaving out entirely the production side of the equation. Echo Bay invested $350-million in its attempt to re-open the AJ Mine, which was once the world’s highest-producing source of gold. However, foolish and selfish, low-resolution thinkers successfully prevented the re-opening of what would have served as Juneau’s own equivalent to Prudhoe Bay. It would have been our permanent fund and could have actually cut our property tax burdens in half. In that scenario we would have actually needed a third high school. However, as is generally the case in human history, we are our own worst enemy. Juneau is dying.

  3. Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau… You all have the exact same overpaid, dysfunctional management from the top.

    Now consolidate and quit draining the PFD. When the legislature steals the PFD from the lower and middle income, they make it proportionately harder to survive in Alaska.

    The legislature, failing school districts and the unions are creators of the lionshare of Alaskas problems.

    Pay the full PFD and a lot more families will stick around.

  4. My oh my, how things change. When I was a Crimson Bear and lived in the Valley I was treated like I lived in Haines. Valley kids were thought to be somewhere between an inconvenience and an embarrassment. I exaggerate, but there was some truth to it.

    • JMARK, Juneau was segregated even beyond your description. There were Downtown, Douglas and Highland kids with sub- groups like the Douglas Mafia, and the Mt. Robert’s Rangers, along with those Davey Crockett themed woodsmen from Tee Harbor and North Douglas.

      Looking back now it seems a wonderful place to grow up.

    • It only requires a few months after graduation for those with moderate intelligence to realize the entire high school clique social structure is about as relevant as the price of tea in Bangladesh. Many desperately attempt to perpetuate the experience into adult life. It’s a pathetic sight actually.

      • Wayne, what is even more pathetic is the killjoy who rejected the opportunity granted one during high school to further social skills and his personal development. Things like sports, theater, chorus, band and clubs,( including Debate Club) might have benefitted you.
        I had to quit school in the middle of my Junior year to enter the workforce in order to help my mother feed her 6 children.
        Too bad you squandered your high school experience you old Irishman.

        • Wow… I commend your leaping abilities. As you may recall, Robert, I actually did not reject opportunities as much as was compelled to forego them due to economic adversity. My dad was a tradesman who worked with his hands; I was required to do the same during my formative years. I didn’t live on the highlands with you, K Peacock, and the rest of the silver-spoons. You know I was raised in Lemon Creek in a 10×44 mobile home. While you partook in the high school social life, I was out in the cold, forming and pouring concrete… preparing for a career of producing tangible results to support those who live vicariously in committee rooms discussing how things should be. While you may view my existence as grotesque, this veteran taxpayer can assure you it is an absolutely essential part of the structure that has always supported your inherent privilege. You are welcome.

  5. Move some immigrants in. Isn’t Juneau a sanctuary city? How about some of those Venezuelans who happen to speak Farsi?

    • Of course we are.

      If we ever find the Venezuelan who speaks Farsi, if they will perform in drag they get seat on the Faux Junta and a house near chicken park.

  6. As I sit here in Phuket I can’t help but weep for the general decline in Alaska.
    I have lived here in Alaska for almost 50 years. I bleed gold and blue. The decline of our population is not reversible. Bureaucracy is killing Alaska by making household formation expensive to the point of impossible.
    I cannot begin to explain how good Alaska has been to me. Love and thanks to all for that.
    But I am done. No matter how much I love Alaska, that love is incapable of overcoming the endless bureaucracy that is present day Alaska
    I am so sorry

  7. I think Joe Geldhof’s points are spot on. I am impressed that the current school board, under Deedie Sorensen’s leadership, is tackling a major problem that they largely inherited from past School Boards. I understand that a JSD/CBJ study was done in 2017 that accurately predicted the exact problem we are facing today, low enrollments. Juneau has to take the emotion out of our current situation and make the very hard business like decisions to stop the bleeding and move forward as best we can. As hard as it is for some JDHI alumni to let go of their fond memories of what was then, we have to do whats best for our kids today and for the next 25 plus years. The vocational aspect is huge and I have to believe we can continue to offer vocational/trades opportunities in the future to all the students. If Thunder Mountain is too small, bring in modular units until we develop a permanent solution. This problem isn’t the State’s fault or Juneau’s fault, it just is what it is and we need to deal with fixing it NOW, as painful as that may be. Our community will be better off in the long run if we repurpose JDHI into the new City Hall sooner than later.
    .

    • Yeah. Please face facts. Dems aren’t going to encourage live human births at any time. Public policies at federal and state levels prohibit livable wages. All victims of Dems policies They have they wanted. Zero. Time to trundle “home”. Why bother.

  8. Thanks for stating the obvious Joe. It’s about time they face some sort of reckoning for years of either being asleep at the wheel or purposefully letting things go believing (as it seems might be happening right now) that they will get bailed out of their problem. The assembly needs to not only hold the school districts feet to the fire on this, they need to rein in the rest of the city’s uncontrolled spending habits.

  9. Joe, look at the historical origins of Juneau.
    Gold mining. Fishing. Most other Alaska towns are also firmly rooted in resource production and small industry. Today, Juneau is the quintessential government town. Made up mostly of outsiders who came to Alaska to find a job as a public bureaucrat. Juneau us also isolated from 94% of the Alaska population. I doubt that anyone outside of Juneau proper gives a damn about whether or not your town gets additional monies for education, or, additional public money for the teacher’s union.

  10. Juneau doesn’t care about education only money. If your not a restaurant, tour company, store or hotel or b and b, or drug dealer, you can’t win here. Housing is 2400 or better unless you want a roommate or purchasing a home. The only way to win in Juneau is to originally be from here or step of a cruise and hope right back on.

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