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St. Paul Board Members Stake Careers On Gains Resulting From School Tax

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The members of the St. Paul Board of Education have staked their political futures on the long-term results of a proposed property-tax increase that would be used to increase student achievement.

In announcing their support 's levy referendum, which would raise $19.5 million a year for six years, the seven board members signed pledges not to run for office again if the school district does not meet targeted goals by 1995.

The St. Paul proposal will be one of the most interesting education-related issues on the Nov. 6 ballot in local jurisdictions around the country, analysts said last week. In addition, school-board members in the District of Columbia and San Francisco will be chosen, while Cincinnati voters will be asked to pass a tax levy considered critical to keeping the public-school system from slipping into insolvency.

The St. Paul board's gesture was criticized by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which called the members' pledges a "silly gimmick." A newspaper columnist also labeled the proposal "hokey."

But board members have stood behind their decision, arguing that while St. Paul students' test scores have improved 14 percent in the past five years, more comprehensive steps need to be taken that will require substantial amounts of new money.

'Gutsy' Move Seen

Margo Fox, chairman of the board, called the board's collective decision a "bold step" that has been praised as "gutsy" by some city residents.

The money raised by the tax levy--a total of $117 million--would go toward funding a long list of programs that district officials believe will improve students' skills and performance. They say that the programs will be aimed at helping assure that all students are ready to start school, improving skills in the basic subject areas, lowering the dropout rate, and strengthening parental involvement in the schools.

Despite such dramatic backing for the referendum, however, it faces considerable odds. Only 20 percent of the voters in St. Paul have children in the public schools, observers note, while the last tax referendum for schools, in 1976, was defeated by a 2-to-1 margin.

Moreover, the St. Paul Chamber of Commerce has come out against the tax levy, arguing that it would discourage new business in the city and add to businesses' already large share of the tax burden.

Tax Levies on Ballots

Voters in Minneapolis, meanwhile, also will be asked to approve a six-year property-tax increase for the schools that is expected to generate approximately $136.2 million.

The money is to be used to reduce class sizes and expand early-childhood and teacher-training programs, according to a spokesman for the school district.

Minneapolis has not sought a tax hike for education in 25 years. A recent survey found that 76 percent of residents were willing to pay higher taxes for education.

In Cincinnati, the proposed tax levy would raise $30 million a year to be used to operate the public schools.

If the levy fails, according to Tom Mooney, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, the school system will be forced to borrow money from the state to keep schools open through the end of the year. The district currently has a $30-million deficit and expects to run out of money by April, he added.

If the district must borrow from the state's emergency fund, Mr. Mooney explained, state officials would first audit the school district and force it to cut programs and student services that are not required by the state's "minimum standards" for schools.

"We've tried to rebuild some normal levels of staffing in the 1980's," Mr. Mooney said, "and it could all be wiped out."

The teachers' union is campaigning hard on behalf of the tax levy, which Mr. Mooney said also enjoys the support of the city's businesses and major community organizations.

Pivotal Board Elections

In the District of Columbia, voters will chose five school-board members from among an unusually large field of 32 candidates. Two veteran members are not running for re-election, while a third member is facing a stiff challenge.

Some observers see the board election determining the fate of Superintendent Andrew E. Jenkins, whose contract expires next June. Mr. Jenkins narrowly avoided being fired last July, and the board has already announced plans to form a search committee sometime this fall to find a successor.

If new board members are elected who support the superintendent, it is possible that they could persuade the board to abandon its plans to find another schools chief, said William H. Simons, president of the Washington Teachers Union.

But a continuing controversy over the district's enrollment figures recently provoked a sharp rebuke of Mr. Jenkins from the president of the board, whose members have expressed increasing frustration with the superintendent. (See Education Week, Oct. 17, 1990.)

"I don't see a new board really reversing a decision that has been made not to renew his contract," Mr. Simons added.

Despite the potential for a new board and the certainty of fresh political leadership from a new mayor who is to be chosen next month, Mr. Simons said, the district is in "a standstill phase" in implementing a sweeping reform plan because of lack of money.

In San Francisco, three of the seven school-board members are run4ning for re-election. There too, some observers said the results could influence the tenure of the superintendent, Ramon C. Cortines.

Myra Kopf, a 12-year incumbent who is seeking re-election, said the board is split 4-to-3 in favor of Mr. Cortines. She characterized herself as a strong supporter of the superintendent, and argued that her re-election is crucial if he is to remain at the helm of the city's schools.

The campaign has centered around several candidates' contentions that the city's dropout rate is too high and that not enough is being done to meet the needs of minority students.

In a brief interview, Mr. Cortines said that he will be leaving the district, but refused to say when or to comment on the board race.

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