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Tide Turns for the Better in N.J., Ohio Budget Votes

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If this is the age of the angry voter, somebody had better tell the people of New Jersey and Ohio.

Voters in both those states were unusually supportive of recent spending referendums put on the ballot by school districts.

In New Jersey, where opinion polls portray voters as sharp-eyed fiscal hawks, 72 percent of about 550 district budgets were approved at the ballot box last month.

Last year, voters there rejected more than half of district spending plans.

In Ohio, meanwhile, where voters last fall rejected a state penny-a-can tax on soft drinks, 63 percent of 193 school districts that put tax questions on the May 2 ballot won.

Finance experts and school officials in those states warned that the results do not necessarily mean that voter protests have crested.

"This is just a hiccup," said Glenn T. Graham, a professor of education at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and a school consultant.

Avoiding Waterloo

Even so, they said, such victories turn on its head the conventional wisdom about the strength of voter protests.

In both states, officials put a finger on the political pulse before the votes and predicted defeats worse than the one Napoleon suffered at Waterloo.

In Ohio's previous round of levy campaigns, in February, voters rejected two out of every three tax issues.

In New Jersey, some school officials expected that a record number of budget vetoes would follow months in which Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and Commissioner of Education Leo Klagholz aimed their rhetoric and policies at what they said were bloated school bureaucracies.

Particularly controversial was the state education department's new penalty for districts whose administrative costs are more than 30 percent above the state average. (See Education Week, 2/22/95.)

"It's tough enough in this climate without having the Governor and the commissioner of education beating you over the head," said Frederick J. Stokley, the superintendent of the 4,800-student Ridgewood district.

In both Ohio and New Jersey, however, voters defied expectations.

Those who tracked these votes said they could only speculate about the trends behind this twist. But they suggested that issues other than education may have been a force.

In Ohio, Republican gains in Congressional seats and in the state legislature may have infused the electorate with good will.

"This is a Republican state," Mr. Graham said. The ballot-box results "could just reflect carry-over euphoria from November."

Corky O'Callaghan, a Cleveland-area school consultant, speculated that the sight of children wounded and dying in the Oklahoma City bombing may have reminded people of the importance of community.

A national event like that "takes the edge off the anger that exists toward government," he said.

A New Concern for Schools?

In both states, some officials speculated that increased fear about the fate of schools may have fueled some wins.

"Some districts were in truly desperate straits" financially, said Tim Kremer, the deputy executive director of the Ohio School Boards Association.

School officials in the state have focused their levy campaigns recently on detailing their spending plans as well as warning the public of the specific cuts that would follow a failed levy vote.

Results appeared mixed from districts that signed "contracts" with voters pledging to hold the line on spending and taxes. (See Education Week, 4/26/95.)

In suburban Cleveland, the 8,300-student Lakewood school district used such a strategy and won its millage increase, but the 3,500-student Garfield Heights district lost its three levy issues.

In New Jersey, some parents perceived the state's spending crackdown as a threat to their schools' quality, several superintendents said.

In the 4,100-student Livingston district, where state aid had been cut by $1.2 million because of "excessive" spending, voter turnout jumped by 10 percent, to 3,300.

"People didn't like the idea of greater state control of their schools," Superintendent Robert S. Kish said.

State education officials, however, pointed to turnout at polls statewide--about 15 percent, the same as last year--as proof that the new penalty did not spur people to vote.

Frank Bellucio, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, also said that penalties had no impact on budget votes. Instead, an improving state economy and school districts' relative immunity from anti-government feelings may have helped districts post wins.

"Much of the voter anger is aimed at big government," Mr. Bellucio said.

"School boards are not big government," he said. "They are really part of the local community."

N.Y. Prospects Brighten

School groups in New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wisconsin, meanwhile, report continuing public reluctance to pass bond issues, levies, and budgets.

In New York State, though, once-gloomy prospects for the annual school-budget season are brightening.

Last year, 31.5 percent of the roughly 630 budgets put before voters annually in May and June were rejected, the most since 1978.

Of the 223 budgets voted on so far this spring, however, more than 80 percent have won approval.

School boards in the state have been more conservative in preparing their budgets and seem to have asked for smaller tax increases, said William J. Pape, the spokesman for the New York State School Boards Association.

They "have been responding to tax fever," he said. "And maybe it's paying off."

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