Juneau’s high school auto shop program in jeopardy as district evaluates options

The University of Alaska Southeast's Technical Education Center. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

The University of Alaska Southeast’s Technical Education Center. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

A long-running partnership between the University of Alaska Southeast and Juneau-Douglas High School may come to an end.

The university allowed the high school to use its automotive facility across Egan Drive for more than 30 years.

Budget constraints mean the school district can no longer afford rent.

The high school’s automotive program runs largely out of the university’s Technical Education Center across the street from the high school.

High school students learn a variety of skills through the program from how to change oil to transmission swaps.

“For us right now, it’s an economic situation where we’re paying $40,000 to hold basically three classes over there, with an up-to-$3 million cut,” said David Means, district director of administrative services. “It’s something we just felt like we couldn’t afford.”

During the budgeting process this spring, the school board made a lot of tough decisions.

One budget item they decided to cut was the $40,000 the district pays annually to rent space in the auto shop from the university.

The district hoped it could negotiate rent with the university. But that hasn’t been the case.

Juneau-Douglas High School automotive instructor Steve Squires points out some of the awards students have won over the years for technical knowledge. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Juneau-Douglas High School automotive instructor Steve Squires points out some of the awards students have won over the years for technical knowledge. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

“I’ve known the school district has been under budgetary crisis, everybody knows that, for the last few years. But it didn’t really dawn on me that the automotive program wasn’t going to make the cut until just a few weeks ago,” said Steve Squires, who has taught the small engine and automotive programs for 19 years.

Squires said he would still be able to teach small engine and introduction to automotive classes in the building.

But losing the auto shop would put an end to the hands-on instruction students receive in the more advanced courses.

“What’s really unfortunate is I think a lot of the (career and technical education) programs are finally starting to turn around and people are starting to understand that college isn’t the only way to make a good living and a good career,” he said.

Squires teaches about 80 students a year and said while he has kids who just want to learn the basics, a number of them go on to automotive or engineering careers.

They’ve won national awards and scholarships using what they learned in the shop.

Some former students now work in repair shops and auto part stores in town.

National trade schools recruit a handful of students each year.

One graduate now works for Tesla.

“They have a facility they have to pay for heating and the maintenance of the equipment and things like that, but they’re really not very negotiable to any kind of reduction in fee when the school district’s going through such a hard budgetary process,” Squires said.

UAS Chancellor Rick Caulfield said the university had a professional broker look at the facility in 2016 to evaluate the rent. The broker determined $40,000 was a fair price.

“We’re all facing budget challenges and at the university we’ve made a number of cuts and I know the school district is facing some of the same challenges,” Caulfield said. “We’re interested in continuing our partnership with the school district, but in the end they have to decide whether that’s a program they want to continue or not in light of their other budget priorities.”

Senior Dylan Rice adjusts a tire during an automotive class in the UAS Technical Education Center. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

Dylan Rice, a senior, adjusts a tire during an automotive class in the UAS Technical Education Center. (Photo by Adelyn Baxter/KTOO)

The university is open to looking for ways to lower rent, Caulfield said. They offered to cut it in half by reducing the amount of space the high school class takes up in the auto shop. The district did not think that would work.

JD senior Dylan Rice has been in the class for two years and is waiting to hear back from automotive schools.

“When you take away the hands-on part of the learning, it’s just book work,” Rice said. “I think that you can’t apply what you know from the book if you’re not using your hands.”

The topic is likely to come up at Wednesday’s special Assembly meeting on the city’s operating budget. The district may ask the city to help cover the cost of rent.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the university’s Technical Education Center. It’s across Egan Drive from the high school, not Glacier Highway. 

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