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Our view: School bonds: Yes to this

Propositions 1 and 2 are, first of all, a deal for Anchorage taxpayers. The two school bond propositions on the April 7 city election ballot are the only ones that come with a pledge that the state will pay off 60 percent to 70 percent of the debt incurred. Proposition 1 for $69.9 million is mostly to complete renovations of Service High, the second-largest school in the district, which opened in 1971 and is badly in need of repairs and remodelling. It also has $2.5 million for water and sewer line extension to Eagle River High, and $680,000 for design of a K-8 school in Girdwood.

Proposition 2, $27.5 million, is mostly for replacing and upgrading major systems in schools. It has money for electrical projects at nine buildings, including West High and half a dozen elementaries; roof replacement at Creekside Park and Inlet View elementaries; traffic projects at Huffman Elementary and Mears Middle School.

With state debt reimbursement, the added property tax for these two bond proposals combined is $21 annually for the owner of a $200,000 house, for the duration of the loan.

With a cost of $66.7 million, the Service High project is pricey. But the school is solidly built -- "It's like a fortress," says Superintendent Carol Comeau -- and it's worth bringing up to snuff.

Most classrooms at Service were remodelled in 2005, leaving major areas such as the small gym, special education classrooms, cafeteria, auditorium, theater and music areas for later.

Later is now. The building still has asbestos in it; the boiler needs to be replaced; and the school has a scant 2-inches of old insulation in exterior walls, says principal Lou Pondolfino. The theater is tiny and old, with 195 seats for a student body of 1,900. The locker and showers in a small separate gym are unuseable. The cafeteria doubles as a rifle range.

Proposition 2 is a meat-and-potatoes, major maintenance proposal.

The school district is often criticized for using bonds to pay for what could be considered maintenance, instead of paying for them out of operating funds.

Assistant Superintendent George Vakalis points out the district spends some $20 million on maintenance work such as patching roofs, repairing walls and ceilings every year out of its operating funds.

But "major replacements are something you have to bond for because of the nature, scope and price tag," he said. A roof may cost a million dollars. With a sprinkler system upgrade, the district has to tear up ceilings and walls. Heating and ventilating systems are also expensive, he says.

Another advantage of bonding for these major systems: They are eligible for debt reimbursement from the state (although in this bond, the $6.5 million for acquiring future school sites does not qualify). If the same improvements were done as part of the operating budget, the state would not pick up 60 percent to 70 percent of the costs.

The Anchorage Chamber of Commerce board, which is sometimes wary of proposals that add to the property tax burden, has endorsed both school bond propositions.

The School District has a 10-year plan for capital improvements; delaying these bonds would also delay other projects behind them in line, the chamber resolution noted.

That's a good point.

Propositions 1 and 2 would allow the district to carry out solid, necessary projects -- and do it with the state as a partner in paying back the debt. They make sense for Anchorage taxpayers.

BOTTOM LINE: State debt reimbursement makes two school bond propositions a bargain for local voters.