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Powers of Persuasion Put To Test in Levy Votes

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Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich is said to carry a copy of the "Contract With America," the list of promises that helped Republicans gain control of Congress last fall, in his coat pocket, close to the heart.

Ronald L. Victor, the superintendent of schools in Garfield Heights, Ohio, hangs his promise to voters on his office wall.

The one-page document is signed by Mr. Victor and members of the school board and framed for display. If voters pass a property-tax increase and tax renewals on the ballot next month, it promises, the district will not seek to raise taxes again before the turn of the century.

Such pledges are becoming a popular tool of persuasion among Ohio school officials facing tough property-tax votes.

In Garfield Heights, the district calls its promise a "guarantee"; in another Cleveland suburb, Lakewood, school officials dub theirs a "contract." Some districts that have not taken the no-tax pledge have, instead, vowed to improve instructional programs.

A Tough Sell

Whatever the name, however, the goal is the same: persuade a reluctant electorate to raise taxes.

That task has become harder in recent years, said Barney L. Dunnan, the legislative services director for the Buckeye Association of School Officials.

As growth in state school funding has flattened, he said, schools have been forced to ask voters to raise taxes over and over.

Last year, voters across Ohio were asked to approve 553 separate tax hikes for schools, an increase of nearly 200 from a decade ago.

Persuading voters to improve increases so frequently is not easy, particularly in regions with strong anti-tax sentiments. To make their case, districts are hiring public-relations companies, making promotional videotapes, and waging door-to-door campaigns.

The one-page pledge is a new twist, Mr. Dunnan said. Districts hope it will be "something that's very understandable by Joe Six-Pack, who isn't interested in opening up his wallet."

In the 8,300-student Lakewood district, the superintendent and the five-member school board have signed the one-page "contract." If next month's levy passes, the contract promises, school officials will hold spending increases to 3.5 percent a year, reduce the number of classes with more than 32 students, and keep the district out of debt without seeking a tax increase before 1999.

Harsh criticism from a local anti-tax group has eroded Lakewood voters' trust in their school officials, W. Charles Geiger, the school board president, said.

Citizens for Quality Schools and Fair Taxes has successfully campaigned against four other proposed tax hikes in the past two years. Mr. Geiger said the group has attacked Lakewood school officials with the venom usually reserved for members of Congress.

"These days, if you're an elected official, you're corrupt until proven otherwise," he said.

Jobs on the Line

Facing similar charges, school board members in Bowling Green have promised not to run for re-election next fall in an effort to stem opposition to the schools' proposed levy next month. They have said they will resign whether the levy passes or not.

The 3,500-student district has been in turmoil for almost a year over a $3 million budget deficit, school officials said. Voters defeated a tax-increase proposal in February and are calling for the heads of the board members.

The message from the voters in February was loud and clear, said Tyne E. Hyslop, one of four board members who announced they will resign in December. "No levy would pass until those people who were to blame were out of office."

Mr. Victor and board members in Garfield Heights have also put their jobs on the line. In their no-tax guarantee to voters, they agree to resign if "forced to break this pledge."

The district is running a 94-day campaign to drum up support for the tax proposal, raising funds from marathon dances, carnivals, and other events.

But the pledge is the district's best leverage in a community with 3,000 public school students, 3,000 private school students, and 10,000 senior citizens, Mr. Victor said.

"This is an honest, rock-solid pledge," he said. "Hopefully, the miracle of '95 will pass."

A 'Cockamamie Contract'

Though such pledges have helped win support for some district levies, critics say they are no longer fooled by elected officials who say, "Read my lips" when promising not to raise taxes.

The Lakewood district's pledges are a "cockamamie contract," Thomas J. Monahan, the head of Citizens for Quality Schools, said. "It's illusory."

Frank J. Wagner, a member of the school board in Garfield Heights, has declined to sign his district's pledge. He opposes the proposed tax increase, and, in an interview last week, he called the no-tax pledge a "cheap political trick."

If the state reduces the district's aid, he predicted, the district will ask taxpayers for more money and no one will step down from office.

"It's just a gimmick to pass the levy," he added. "None of them will resign."

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