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Federal Official Leads Citizens' School-Funding Drive

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Valentin Obregon, a U.S. Justice Department official, says he would not be surprised if people in Middletown, Ohio, think he can "walk on water."

As coordinator of a little-known federal intervention program, Mr. Obregon was instrumental in helping citizens of the small city save their school district's bus service and spring sports.

The program, which relied on the intensive efforts of a group of students, parents, and other residents, was so successful that Mr. Obregon hopes to turn it into a model for other districts that are having trouble raising local support for school levies.

The initiative could be an especially important example for other districts in Ohio, where voters have shown a reluctance in recent years to approve school tax mea4sures. In elections held last month in the state, only 41 percent of school levies were approved.

Facing a $1.4-million deficit after three money issues were turned down by local voters last year, Middletown was just such a district.

The school board was forced in December to reduce bus service to the minimum level required by the state, eliminate sports, music, and other supplemental programs, and stop evening use of school buildings for extracurricular activities, according to Harry E. Eastridge, the superintendent.

The cutbacks enraged local community members. "They really blasted us," Mr. Eastridge said.

Critics complained that the cuts discriminated against disadvantaged and minority students, who are less likely to be able to afford their own transportation. A group of parents sought the help of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which unsuccessfully filed a lawsuit against the district to block the cutbacks.

The n.a.a.c.p. then turned to the Chicago branch of the Justice Department's office of community relations, which dispatched Mr. Obregon to Middletown.

His welcome there was far from friendly, he recalled.

"Community members and school-board members were not even speaking to each other, much less to me," he said. "All they could do was call each other names."

"A lot of school officials were fearful of a federal authority's involvement in the issue," Mr. Eastridge observed.

Soon, though, Mr. Obregon had managed to "build a few bridges" and form a group called Citizens Are Responsible for Excellent Schools, despite what he said was resistance by local officials.

Cares launched a public-awareness campaign to raise local money for the schools. Efforts included a door-to-door canvass by students, who asked voters to pledge support for a 5.2-mill school levy that will be on the ballot in May.

Members of the group also raised about $160,000--enough to restore transportation and sports programs and ensure that buildings stay open for after-school activities.

District officials described the campaign as a rare success story of cooperation between a community and federal officials.--lj

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