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Interest Groups Seek To Sway N.Y.C. Board Races

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The intense interest in next month's school board elections in New York City has reached a fever pitch, with some of the city's most powerful politicians and institutions trying to influence the outcome of the voting and encourage people to vote.

The elections for members of the city's 32 community school district boards are normally sleepy affairs; four years ago, just 7 percent of registered voters bothered to cast ballots.

But this spring, in the wake of the dismissal of Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez over his handling of several controversial social issues, the May 4 elections have become front-page news.

They are part of a battle over how much control the community boards should have over what is taught in the city's elementary and junior high schools, and over the larger question of how the entire New York City system should be governed. (See Education Week, March 24, 1993.)

The heightened stakes have prompted the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York to forge an alliance with the conservative Christian Coalition--the Virginia-based organization run by the Rev. Pat Robertson--to distribute "voter guides'' prepared by the coalition's New York office.

"I will admit that this is the first time the archdiocese has been as heavily involved in school board races as we are this year,'' said Joseph Zwilling, the director of communications for the archdiocese.

"We are not telling people which candidates they should be voting for,'' he added. "The church's teaching on various issues is no secret.''

Targeting Voters

On the other side of the political spectrum, People for the American Way has organized a council of 25 clergymen of various faiths to offer counterarguments to attacks on sex and AIDS education, condom distribution, tolerance for homosexuality, and other explosive issues that have kept the New York City schools in an uproar for months.

For his part, Mayor David N. Dinkins has announced plans to spend $635,000 to send postcards to the city's approximately three million registered voters and to buy advertising aimed at boosting turnout. The "Dear Voter'' cards give voters a number to call to request more information about the board candidates, supplied by the candidates themselves.

Robert Steinman, a policy analyst in the Mayor's office of education services, noted that the city sends voter cards for other elections, but that it has never done so before for school board elections.

The Mayor's action was prompted by concern over the low turnout in previous school board elections, Mr. Steinman said, rather than specific concern over activity by socially conservative candidates.

"School boards shouldn't get elected by such a small percentage of the electorate,'' he said.

A number of prominent New York politicians also are involved with a liberal committee called SchoolPac, which held a fund-raiser last week and plans to organize a get-out-the-vote effort.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil-rights activist, has been participating in voter rallies, and numerous local education groups and grassroots organizations are working to interview candidates and drum up support for either liberal or conservative slates of candidates.

Coalition Questionnaire

The archdiocese's decision to distribute the Christian Coalition's materials has increased the interest in the election because of the unusual partnership between the Catholic Church and the conservative Protestant group.

Mr. Zwilling said the Christian Coalition's voter guide will be distributed to parishes in Manhattan, Staten Island, and the Bronx if it meets the archdiocese's specifications. Individual pastors will then decide how to use the material, he added.

The archdiocese insisted that the guides be fair, not endorse any candidates, and cover a broad range of issues.

"We anticipate that all of our requirements will be met,'' Mr. Zwilling said.

The Diocese of Brooklyn, which includes both Brooklyn and Queens, does not plan to distribute the material. Instead, church members in those boroughs are interviewing candidates themselves.

Six hundred candidates are running for 288 seats on the school boards.

Roughly one-third of them responded to a Christian Coalition questionnaire that was used to compile the voter guide, according to Jeff Baran, the executive director of the Christian Coalition of New York State. The questionnaire asked 28 questions about budgetary matters, parents'-rights issues, school security, curriculum, and moral issues, he said.

"We feel that it's very well balanced and well rounded,'' Mr. Baran said.

The organization is prohibited by law from endorsing candidates, as are churches.

'Upping the Ante'

Some critics of the Christian Coalition, including Skipp Porteous, who tracks its activities at the Institute for First Amendment Studies in Great Barrington, Mass., and Barbara Handman, the New York director of People for the American Way, said the group's voter guides tend to include responses to just a handful of questions on moral issues.

"I've never seen them use more than five or six questions on any voter guide before,'' Mr. Porteous said.

The 500,000 copies of the New York City voter guides were expected to be printed by late last week, Mr. Baran said.

Ms. Handman, noting that the Christian Coalition is relatively new to New York City, said the coalition's alliance with the archdiocese has "upped the ante'' in the elections.

"They needed credibility,'' she said of the Christian Coalition, "and you can't get greater credibility than the Catholic Church.''

In response, her organization put together the Clergy Council, whose members will make themselves available for interviews and "talk about the threat they feel'' from conservative Christians, Ms. Handman said.

Despite the concern over the elections, it is difficult to ascertain how many slates of candidates conservative Christian activists are actually fielding.

Ms. Handman estimated that such groups are "praying for'' slates in 20 of the 32 districts.

The United Federation of Teachers is endorsing candidates in only 10 districts, according to Ron Davis, a spokesman for the teachers' union.

The union's district representatives target boards whose members are perceived to be "self-interested,'' he said, and try to elect people who are knowledgeable about education.

The union is not getting involved in races on "single issues,'' such as conservative activism, Mr. Davis noted.

"We've heard a lot about the so-called 'religious right' in the press,'' he said, "but our people out in the districts don't see that they are mounting any sort of serious campaign.''

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