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Tax Limits, Bonds, Board Races on Local Ballots

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Fiscal issues with implications for schools will figure prominently in local elections around the country next week.

In two Maryland counties outside Washington, for example, educators are fighting to defeat initiatives that would limit the amount of property taxes the counties could collect.

The Seattle school district, meanwhile, is trying again to win passage of a school-bond proposal that voters defeated in September. And the Atlanta schools, which have not won approval of a school-renovation bond measure in nearly a quarter-century, are hoping for better luck Nov. 3.

Elsewhere, other issues to be weighed by voters include school vouchers--a major plank for a slate of four school board candidates in Dade County, Fla.--and the creation of elected school boards, a proposal that will be on the ballot in some 40 Virginia localities.

Property Taxes Targeted

In Maryland's Montgomery and Prince George's counties, many voters are angry with recent decisions by elected officials to raise local income taxes by 20 percent. That anger provided the impetus for drives by loosely organized groups of taxpayers to place proposals to curb property taxes on next week's ballot.

A measure in Montgomery County seeks to offset the income-tax increase with an equivalent reduction in property-tax revenue. A similar proposal in Prince George's County would limit the annual increase in property-tax collections to the rate of inflation, up to 5 percent.

The measures would be particularly damaging, opponents argue, because they would lock in the counties' tax bases at their current levels. They would thus be prevented from reaping the new revenues that come from new development and that help pay for the increased costs of providing educational and other services to more people.

"It would have a disastrous effect on generating revenue for the school system,'' Brian J. Porter, the spokesman for the Montgomery County schools, said of the ballot initiative there.

The county spends half of its revenues on its schools, which expect enrollment to increase by 21,000 in the next five years, Mr. Porter said.

The Montgomery measure is being opposed by the county school board, the county council, the local Democratic Party, and many parent-teacher organizations.

In Prince George's County, the county executive has been arguing that, if the ballot initiative passes, the schools will go into an "irretrievable slide downward'' that could drive away residents and businesses.

Buildings, Programs

In Atlanta, voters will be asked to approve a $94 million bond referendum to renovate the city's schools and bring them all up to a "minimum standard,'' said James E. Johnson, the associate superintendent of the city's school system.

In 1988, Atlanta voters defeated a similar proposal. In fact, they have not approved a bond referendum for school renovations since 1968, Mr. Johnson said.

In St. Paul, voters will consider a school levy that would raise $12 million annually over five years, with $7 million to be spent each year to reduce class size and $2.5 million earmarked annually to expand preschool programs.

To win the support of St. Paul's business community, school officials backed off their original request for a levy of $16.5 million a year.

In Dayton, Ohio, voters are being asked to approve a 10.4-mill continuing levy to be spent on specific programs, including multicultural education, gifted and talented programs, and schools of choice.

If the levy does not pass, the district will face a $8.7 million deficit by next June, district officials said.

In Seattle, voters will again be asked to consider a $695 million school-bond issue, mostly for new schools, that failed earlier this fall by a narrow margin. (See Education Week, Sept. 30, 1992.)

Kathy Bunnell Johnson, the press secretary for an organization seeking to get the measure passed, said volunteers from her group were focusing their campaign efforts on neighborhoods in the outskirts of the city, where support for the measure was lowest in the Sept. 15 vote.

Voucher-Oriented Slate

Several noteworthy school board races are also on the Nov. 3 ballot.

In Dade County, a slate of four Republicans who are touting private school vouchers and public "charter'' schools is challenging four incumbent Democrats.

A fifth seat on the board, vacated by a member who was elected to the state Senate, will be filled by either a Dade County principal or a public-relations consultant.

The members of the Republican slate believe that "the problem with our education system today is that it is basically a bureaucracy,'' said David M. Farrar, the owner of a court-reporting firm who is challenging Janet McAliley, the chairwoman of the board.

The slate has crafted a position paper calling for a "voucher-funded, free-choice school system'' that Mr. Farrar said would inject much-needed competition into the school system.

"The lines are clearly drawn between my opponent and me,'' Ms. McAliley said. "I do not favor taking money away from the public schools to finance private schools that are not under the same regulations and requirements that the public schools are.''

Ms. McAliley maintained that the opposition slate is "not very politically astute,'' and she noted that the major Dade County employee and civic groups have endorsed the incumbent board members.

"I am definitely an underdog,'' Mr. Farrar said. "I don't care if I have a good shot--my objective to get this out to the public.''

More Diversity?

In San Francisco, 14 candidates are running for four at-large seats, only one of which is being defended by an incumbent, Leland Yee.

Dennis Kelly, the director of political activity for the United Educators of San Francisco, said the election is an opportunity to get "some racial diversity and some youth on the board.'' The union has endorsed four candidates, including a young African-American man and an Asian-American woman; it is not backing Mr. Yee.

If Mr. Yee retains his seat, he would be the most experienced board member, with four years of service, Mr. Kelly noted. The other three members were elected in 1990.

They and the new board members will have to forge a working relationship with the district's new superintendent, Bill Rojas, who began his job last summer.

In Virginia, voters in 42 districts will decide in referendums whether they wish to move from appointed boards of education to elected ones--an option long denied to Virginia school districts under state law. The law was repealed this year. (See Education Week, Feb. 26, 1992.)

The list of communities considering such measures includes the counties of Appomattox, King George, and Rappahannock as well as the cities of Fredericksburg, Manassas, and Newport News.

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