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Milwaukee Voters Reject School-Construction Bond

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In a move urged by city officials and dissident school board members, Milwaukee voters last week overwhelmingly rejected a $366 million bond proposal that would have financed improvements in school facilities.

With overall voter turnout unexpectedly high at more than 120,000, 75 percent of those who cast ballots in the referendum opposed the measure put forth to finance most of Superintendent Howard L. Fuller's 10-year school-construction and -maintenance plan.

"It is not that people don't feel that education is important,'' said Mark A. Borkowski, a Milwaukee County supervisor whose district includes sections of the city and who helped organize a group opposing the measure. "The plan that was presented to everybody on the Feb. 16 ballot simply was not affordable.''

Voters "did not see the direct correlation between bricks-and-mortar projects'' and increased academic performance, Mr. Borkowski added.

Jeanette Mitchell, the president of the Milwaukee city school board, last week said that "no one debated the need'' for new facilities, "but they were not willing to pay the price.''

New Proposal Needed

As results of the vote rolled in and the defeat of the proposal seemed certain, Mr. Fuller urged the city's residents to keep in mind that "the need of our children remains.''

The defeat, district officials said, means the school board must develop new strategies for dealing with the district's facilities crisis. Many elementary school students are being taught in storage rooms, and nearly one-third of eligible children are being turned away from kindergarten for lack of space, according to officials.

Currently, the enrollment of schools in the central section of the city exceeds their capacity by more than 30,000. Voluntary transfers provide some relief, but an additional 14,000 students must be bused to distant schools.

The defeated measure would have authorized the district to borrow $366 million to fund much of a 10-year, $474 million plan calling for 15 new schools, additions at 14 existing facilities, and more than $50 million in maintenance and backlogged repairs.

The other $108 million would have come from the district's regular annual property-tax levy. The state was expected to provide nearly $1 billion more to pay operating costs and other expenses linked to the plan.

The bond issue and facilities plan was expected to increase property taxes by about 20 percent over 10 years, with the average Milwaukee homeowner paying an estimated additional $191 in property taxes over the course of the decade.

Foes in High Places

The nine-member Milwaukee school board had voted unanimously last summer to approve the facilities plan and, at first, unanimously endorsed the ballot measure, which seemed in early opinion polls to enjoy popular support.

Yet, even as the board voted last November to hold the referendum, there were rumblings of discontent from other public officials.

The week before that vote, Mayor John O. Norquist of Milwaukee had proposed an alternate plan calling for $184 million in school construction financed through the city's borrowing authority. Superintendent Fuller persuaded the board to reject that plan. (See Education Week, Nov. 18, 1992.)

Two months ago, Mr. Borkowski and a coalition of other local politicians and business leaders formed Taxpayers Opposed to Referendum Alliance and launched the opposition campaign. Volunteers worked telephone banks and, during the 10 days before the election, the group launched a television advertising blitz.

The group's efforts gained momentum as 10 of 17 city aldermen and State Rep. Polly Williams, a prominent local Democrat and education activist, sided against the plan.

More recently, two school board members came out against the measure. Lawrence J. O'Neil said he abandoned his support for the plan because of his constituents' opposition, and Jared M. Johnson withdrew his support to protest what he described as the district's lack of commitment to awarding construction contracts to minority firms.

With school officials prohibited by law from campaigning in behalf of the measure, its fate rested largely on the efforts of the Our Children's Future Coalition, a group of business, labor, religious, parent, and neighborhood groups that launched its campaign last month.

Voter turnout appeared to be higher than expected everywhere except the central sections of the city likely to benefit most from the plan.

Mr. Borkowski credited a local radio station with helping his group's cause by frequently airing discussions of the referendum on its talk shows.

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