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Voters in L.A., Cleveland Face Key Questions

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Voters in Los Angeles will decide next week whether to approve the largest-ever bond issue for school construction in a single district--$2.4 billion to pay for renovations at hundreds of the massive system's schools.

Meanwhile, Cleveland officials are hoping that the city's residents will break a 13-year streak of voting no on school levies and pass a property-tax measure considered vital to the future of the troubled district. And Minneapolis voters will decide whether to approve additional taxes for maintaining small class sizes and early-childhood programs begun after a successful 1990 referendum.

The proposals stand out among the hundreds of education-related measures on local ballots around the country, both for their size and the pivotal role they could play in the future of the districts involved.

Los Angeles, like thousands of other districts, faces a growing need to repair and upgrade schools that in many cases are more than 50 years old.

And officials in Cleveland, like their counterparts in many other areas, face an electorate that has grown weary of demands for more taxes. The city, hailed around the country for a renaissance in its civic and cultural life, nevertheless remains plagued by chronically poor-performing schools.

Aging Schools

For the 667,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest, approval of the bond issue for school construction and repair would allow much-needed repairs on aging buildings, said Brad Sales, a special assistant to Superintendent Sidney A. Thompson.

Quite simply, the district's schools are getting old. Of 663 conventional K-12 schools and 236 adult, alternative, or special education facilities, 438 were built more than 40 years ago, officials say.

Among the problems, they say, are leaking roofs, decaying walls, obsolete electrical wiring, and broken drainage systems. Money from the bond issue would also allow for wiring schools for increased use of computer technology. Deteriorating playgrounds would also receive new equipment and improvements.

District officials say they'll take extra care to ensure that the money is spent where it is needed most. "Each school will have a contract with the district which identifies the projects to be funded from the bond proceeds," said Beth Louargand, the general manager of the district's facilities service division.

The school board has formed a special panel to oversee the spending of the bonds, which would be sold over nine years.

Mr. Thompson, who is stepping down at the end of this school year after 41 years with the district, strongly favors the referendum and has devoted his time in recent weeks to promoting it.

The Los Angeles City Council, the local teachers' union, and the state schools superintendent, Delaine Eastin, have endorsed the measure.

Though local polls have indicated strong support among voters for improving schools, some surveys have shown reluctance among residents to shoulder the increase in property taxes. It remained unclear last week whether the measure would receive the two-thirds support needed to pass.

Bertha Sandoval, a resident of east Los Angeles and the mother of two elementary school students there, said most of her neighbors support the bond. "I'm all for it, and I haven't heard of anyone who is against it," Ms. Sandoval said. "I just want my children to be able to go to school safely, to be comfortable, and to make it home."

Cleveland residents have not approved an operating levy for schools since 1983. Ohio's largest school system is hoping to reverse that trend with the proposed 13.5 mill levy on next week's ballot.

Among other purposes, the district has said it would use the $67 million a year the levy would generate to help erase a $152 million debt.

Chronic Troubles

The 74,000-student district has operated under state oversight since last year, when a federal judge in the city's long-running desegregation case ordered the takeover.

The judge declared a state of crisis brought on by chronic mismanagement and longstanding financial woes in the district, which has an annual budget of about $600 million. ("'Crisis' Spurs State Takeover of Cleveland," March 15, 1995.)

Mayor Michael R. White, a Democrat, and Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich, a Republican, have endorsed the levy, though the mayor was initially hesitant. Mr. White has said he now believes that the school district has no other way to solve its financial problems.

Some detractors, however, believe the mayor's endorsement was too little, too late.

"It's like the city has given up on regular people," said Elnita Stargell, a mother of two children who attend Cleveland schools. "When it comes time for the schools to get a little something, the mayor don't want to give it."

'A Powerful Impact'

In Minneapolis, school officials are hoping voters will approve a property-tax increase that would allow the district to maintain class-size reductions and early-childhood programs made possible by a 1990 referendum.

The so-called excess levy would bring in about $33 million a year for five years, district officials say. Officials in the 47,000-student district have lobbied heavily for the measure, and the City Council has endorsed it.

But some voters, saying the achievement gains promised in 1990 have not materialized, have expressed reluctance to support a new levy.

District officials argue that, without the extra money, things would be worse.

"It will have a powerful impact on our schools," Peter Hutchinson, the district's superintendent, said in a recent interview.

Mr. Hutchinson and his St. Paul, Minn.-based consulting company, Public Strategies Group Inc., have managed the district since 1994.

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