School Board backs $97 million bond plan

Megan Holland

The Anchorage School Board late Monday approved asking Anchorage voters for their endorsement of the sale of $97 million in municipal bonds for school improvements.

The bond plans include two propositions: the first one asks voters to approve $68,880,000 to renovate Service High School, design a new Girdwood Elementary school and pay for work on Eagle River High School's water and sewer systems; the second one asks for $27,480,000 for nine items, including buying land for a new elementary school in Eagle River, traffic safety projects, mechanical projects and electrical projects.

Superintendent Carol Comeau, who recognized the "difficult economic times," recommended the proposals and urged board members to approve them, saying it was an important investment in the district's assets.

The board voted 6-1 on the first proposition, with only board member Crystal Kennedy dissenting. The second proposition passed unanimously.

Kennedy said she didn't think voters would pass a big construction project.

"What we aren't being realistic about is the real fears that are out there," she said. "It may not be an economic crisis but it's a huge economic question."

She said the board needs to be responsive to the public. "We (shouldn't) demand more of the taxpayers than they can handle right now."

Board members grappled with the pros and cons of putting the proposals before voters for more than an hour before taking a vote about 11 p.m. Most said they thought the district couldn't delay anymore on the projects.

Board member Tim Steele said, "I believe these bonds are necessary and we need to keep with the program."

"We are falling behind," he said.

Public testimony at the School Board meeting came down on both sides of the plan, which would go before voters in April if endorsed by the Anchorage Assembly.

Joi Rhoades, a Service High student, told board members about water stains on floors, poor lighting, and old, mismatched lockers. "Let's make Service beautiful," she said.

Girdwood Elementary sixth-grader Gwen Quigley told board members about her school. "Our classrooms are undersized and squished," she said. "Our gym is very small."

Rob Timmins, though, spoke against the bonds. "I see wants, not needs in these bonds," he said.

He asked the board to turn down the proposals because of the recession. He warned against accumulating unsustainable debt, and said believes if the projects really are critical, the state would step up to pay for the projects. Local property owners should not have to, he said.

The bonds are eligible for 60 to 70 percent reimbursement from the state. This leaves property owners paying the remaining, or about $10.60 for every $100,000 of the assessed valuation of their homes for the next 20 years.

Since 1993, voters have approved about $1 billion in school construction and renovation bonds. Currently, the district is about $790 million in debt, which is more than double what it was a decade ago.

The School District, which educates 50,000 kids, has a backlog of major projects planned for its schools. If it were to modernize every school, it would cost taxpayers about $720 million, the district says.