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Published in Print: September 25, 1996, as Schools Courting Vote of Nation's Burgeoning Population of Seniors

Schools Courting Vote of Nation's Burgeoning Population of Seniors

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Retired electrician Luis Sklar already has decided to vote against a local school-bond issue in November. At 69, Mr. Sklar says he has paid enough taxes and, besides, he doubts his money would go to good use.

"I was in a furniture store where the clerk needed a calculator to figure out a 10 percent discount," said Mr. Sklar, who moved here from New Jersey last year with his wife, Mildred. "They're not teaching them much nowadays."

But school officials here in one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation cannot afford to write off Mr. Sklar, no matter how dead set against the bond he may appear. After all, he is part of the rapidly expanding and politically powerful senior citizen population.

Instead, schools in Clark County, Nev., and nationwide are reaching out to the seniors in their communities through volunteer programs, partnerships, and bond campaigns, hoping to convince them that public schools still work for children and remain a good investment.

"People are living longer than ever, and their contact with public schools is longer than ever," said Sissy Henry, the deputy executive director of the South Carolina School Boards Association. "People support institutions they have ownership in."

New Dynamics

Between 1980 and 1990, the population of the United States grew by 9.8 percent. But the percentage of Americans 65 and over increased 21.6 percent.

Such large increases in the elderly population are expected to continue well into the next century. At the same time, K-12 enrollment is expected to grow 10 percent between 1994 and 2006.

"We're at a period of time when America is graying before our eyes," said Terry Whitney, an education-policy specialist with the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver. "Seniors will be very critical to issues of school finance."

In southern Nevada's Clark County school district, growth on both ends of the age spectrum is colliding. Enrollment here has ballooned from 95,416 in 1986 to 166,788 in 1995.

At the same time, retirees are flocking here in record numbers to enjoy the area's year-round warm weather, world-famous gaming industry, and one of the nation's lowest state tax rates.

Thirty-six percent of the 1.1 million people in and around Las Vegas are older than 55, compared with about 21 percent nationwide.

"They're told that when they come to Las Vegas you won't have to pay anything," Brian Cram, the Clark County schools superintendent said recently.

Changing that mind-set is the challenge the district faces this fall when it will ask voters to approve a $643 million construction bond.

School officials were only partly successful the last time around, in 1994, when they put a two-part school bond on the ballot. ''Part A,'' which raised $605 million and did not increase taxes, passed easily. ''Part B,'' a $300 million bond that would have raised property taxes $39 per year on a $100,000 home, failed by 746 votes, or less than half of 1 percent of all votes cast.

School officials figured that if a few pockets of senior citizens here had not voted, or had voted differently, Part B would have passed.

One of those pockets was Sun City, a growing retirement community where residents must be 55 or older and homes run from $121,000 to $277,000.

Lush green golf courses cut through the sea of tan ceramic-tile roofs where 10,599 people live and play, including Mr. and Mrs. Sklar.

School officials and local businesses, including casinos, lobbied vigorously to win the support of Sun City and other senior-dominated areas.

"I told them that somebody paid for their education, and made it a moral and ethical issue," Mr. Cram said. His message also targeted their pocketbooks.

"I said that you need to understand the consequences. You're going to be dependent on the graduates of the Clark County school system for your retirement, so we have little room for error."

But a lot of other factors come into play at Sun City, where opinions about bonds and public schools are as easy to find--and just as prickly--as a desert cactus.

"People were just fed up with increased taxes," Jack L. Dusseau, a retired aerospace engineer from Michigan, said of the 1994 bond vote.

And it is not getting any easier. Taxes on Social Security income have increased, and property taxes climbed last year, he pointed out.

Mr. Dusseau, who calls himself a "hard old conservative," nevertheless backed the 1994 bond and is championing the 1996 issue.

"A lot of the older people in their late 70s and 80s are more negative than people in their early 60s," said Mr. Dusseau, who is 67. "I can't imagine myself being negative as long as I'm getting value out of my money."

Retired Las Vegas teachers Larry and Mary Jo Spigelmyer are split over the 1996 bond, though they have a son who teaches in the district's schools and a grandson who is an elementary school student in Las Vegas.

"Normally I'd just vote against it to protest it, but I have an ulterior motive [to vote for it]," Mr. Spigelmyer, a former junior high teacher, said, referring to his son and grandson.

But his wife, who used to teach 1st grade, said, "We need to see that the number-one priority will be kids and teaching basics and that money will go to regular classrooms."

Lois Gross is somewhere in the middle. Ms. Gross lived in California and recorded books for the blind before retiring and moving here. She might support the bond but wants a detailed description of how the money will be spent. And she wants bond supporters to stop portraying seniors as penny pinchers who would rather play bingo or go to a casino show than help schools.

"People here say, 'I've worked for 50 years, and I've earned my recreation. This is the time of my life to spend my money as I please,'" she said. "Just because I have disposable income doesn't mean I have to spend it on school bonds."

Open-Minded

Research suggests that senior citizens are not a monolith opposed to increased school funding or other school-related initiatives. Instead, several factors contribute to the senior community's willingness to side with school interests.

According to a 1994 survey by the American Association of Retired Persons, senior citizens were more likely to vote for school bonds if their tax burden was not already high and if they believed public schools were doing a good job.

"I think there's a misperception of what's happening," said Bob Prisuta, the director of demographics for the Washington-based AARP. "It doesn't have anything to do with age, and more to do with tax burden on personal income."

The association's survey also found that senior citizens are sensitive to the level of state aid that schools receive and are more willing to chip in if that amount is low.

Other research found that seniors moving into a new area, without local ties, are a harder sell than those who have lived in an area all their lives. But Ms. Henry of the South Carolina school boards' group said the opposite can be true. Sometimes, newcomers with high education levels can infuse uninterested locals with new enthusiasm for using school facilities or encourage them to volunteer in classrooms.

But the bottom line may be patiently courting the interest of seniors.

"It's a hard sell to them because they're on fixed incomes," said Scott Higginson, a vice president for government and public affairs with the Del Webb Corp., which built Sun City. "They vote like everyone else, and they want to be educated."

Success Stories

It is with that goal in mind that Clark County is trying a new approach this fall to garner support for its bond.

The plan started with a decision earlier this year by student leaders to make the bond issue a top priority.

Under the banner of "Seniors Help Seniors," the students will attend a workshop with public relations professionals and then visit retirement communities to talk up the bond issue.

This strategy also lets students and residents meet, giving the students a chance to contradict what are often negative stereotypes of young people, Superintendent Cram said.

"These people picked Las Vegas to retire, and if it's growing, they have to live with it," said John Tang, a Clark High School senior who will be part of the campaign. "There's no line where you stop supporting society."

And district officials are trying to recruit more senior citizens as school volunteers. They give "gold cards" to people 62 or older, and cardholders can attend school sports and cultural events free.

"If we could get every one of them into the schools and working with kids, we'd be in fat city," Mr. Cram said.

Ms. Henry, who has promoted school bond issues nationwide, however, warned against making short-term pleas to senior citizens.

"The districts that consciously say, 'We want seniors to see the value of public education,' and have done this for the last 10 years, have seen successes," Ms. Henry said.

Here are some examples:

  • Several years ago, school officials in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood, Ohio, responded to the fact that residents were getting older and more removed from public schools. "As the community got grayer and grayer, we knew we had to give them something more than concerts," said Saul Eisen, a Beachwood school board member.

The district launched a program called Elderclass, which brings seniors to local schools one day a month to have a student-prepared lunch and listen to guest speakers, who include local professionals and some students. About 150 senior citizens turned out for the first event in 1990.

Elderclass includes a full-time coordinator, computer courses for senior citizens at the schools, tutors, free admission to school events, and a student-chaperoned senior citizen prom.

It is no coincidence, school officials in Beachwood said, that two bond issues since 1990 have passed with an average of nearly three-quarters of the vote and that public perceptions of the schools are vastly positive.

  • This fall, students and senior citizens in Minnetonka, Minn., will share the new $8 million Lindbergh Center, a recreation facility built jointly by the school system and the city. Students will have primary use of the center during the day, but the facility will be open to local residents at that time as well.

"There's going to be a lot more intergenerational interaction, mostly between seniors and kids," said Dan Johnson, the facilities manager for the Hopkins school district. "As a result of this, we're talking about incorporating some of the seniors into high school classes."

  • School officials in South Carolina's Richland and Lexington counties, which make up one school district, learned the hard way not to underestimate the input of their older citizens.

After the district lost a $48 million bond issue last November, it asked senior citizens who fought the measure to form a budget-review committee. Last May, a more modest $19 million bond that reflected the input of the panel passed with 60 percent of the vote.

"Most of those seniors that we worked with came out and voted yes," said Buddy Price, the district's spokesman. "We were able to convince them we were serious about being efficient."

"Knocking at the Doors" was made possible by a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Vol. 16, Issue 04, Pages 1,16-18

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