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Detroit Voters Back Unprecedented $1.5 Billion Bond Issue

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Detroit voters overwhelmingly approved an unprecedented $1.5 billion school-construction bond issue last week, astounding some local leaders who had refused to support it.

Proposal S, the largest bond issue ever passed by one of the nation's school districts, cruised like a Cadillac to victory with 60 percent of the vote.

The bond issue, which will be spent on school construction and new technology, won even without the backing of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, Mayor Dennis Archer, and other civic and business leaders. Supporters relied instead on a determined grassroots campaign.

"We went door to door. We telephone banked. We went school to school, church to church--everything," said Delores Smith, the head of the Citizens for Bond Committee, a campaign organization with about 75 members.

The Detroit vote was in many ways the most surprising of several education-related local elections decided around the country last week. Other urban districts were not as successful in passing bonds.

Both Seattle and Fresno, Calif., last week hung on the wire, counting absentee ballots to determine whether their bond measures had passed. Seattle officials were seeking a $332 million bond, and Fresno residents were asked to approve a bond for $215 million.

In Cleveland, voters again rejected a levy for school desegregation and reform, leaving the district the unpleasant prospect of $16 million in new budget cuts and without enough money to fulfill its end of a desegregation agreement.

Chattanooga, Tenn., voters chose to dismantle their system and consolidate it with surrounding Hamilton County, largely out of the belief that doing so would bring a tax break.

In other communities, where school board races often hinged largely on social issues, conservative Christian groups appeared to have had mixed success in getting candidates elected to board seats. (See Education Week, 10/26/94.)

Reflecting the electorate's overall discontent, voters in the District of Columbia and several states approved proposals for term limits that will apply to local school boards. (See related story )

Lingering Detroit Doubts

In Detroit, the Citizens for Bond Committee had encouraged voters to visit city schools and see for themselves the old and run-down condition of many of them.

"We felt our schools needed to be brought up to the 21st century so that our children would have the same opportunity as any other children throughout this state," Ms. Smith said.

Noting that Detroit voters also re-elected five of six incumbent board members, Superintendent David L. Snead said residents expressed "a clear vote of confidence" in the direction the district is heading.

Organizations that had withheld their support from the bond issue showed little such confidence last week, however.

"Our concern continues regarding the planning, management, and cost impact of a $1.5 billion program in the fragile economic situation which exists in Detroit," said Frank E. Smith, president of the Greater Detroit Chamber of Commerce.

And John M. Elliott, the president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, continued last week to question whether the money will be spent wisely.

Chattanooga Consolidation

The Chattanooga referendum, passed by 54 percent of voters, called for the 122-year-old city system to consolidate with the Hamilton County district by July 1997.

Its backers told residents their taxes would drop and said the city's schools would benefit from the county district's expertise in site-based management.

(See educational atmosphere for our children," said Glenn C. Stophel, who promoted consolidation as the chairman of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and a leader of a separate pro-referendum citizens' group.

Mr. Stophel and other consolidation backers had not claimed, however, that consolidation would racially integrate the 20,100-student city system, which is 62 percent black, and the 24,000-student county system, which is 95 percent white.

The measure was opposed by the Chattanooga school board and superintendent, as well as by some community activists and civil-rights advocates.

James R. Mapp, the president of the Chattanooga branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, had argued that consolidation would ill serve the city's black children, in part because the city school board has had far more black members than its county counterpart.

Conservatives' Role

Although conservative Christians flexed their muscle in some gubernatorial and Congressional races, their success at the local school board level appeared mixed.

In Orlando, Fla., Wayne Rickman, an advocate of school prayer, gained 55 percent of the vote and a seat on the Orange County school board. He won with the help of the Christian Coalition, the national organization founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

But in two districts--Omaha and the Saddleback Valley Unified School District, which encompasses Mission Viejo, Calif.--several incumbents held off challengers they tagged as supported by conservative Christian groups.

And in Lake County, Fla., the elections were predicted to give a more centrist cast to a five-member school board that conservative Christians had dominated.

The Republicans who won the three open seats had billed themselves as considerably more moderate than their predecessors, who earlier this year passed a policy requiring students be taught the cultural superiority of the United States. (See related story

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