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Atlanta, Denver Boards Win Votes of Confidence

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For schools in Atlanta and Denver, two districts that have experienced their share of turmoil in recent years, the results of last week's board elections may signal a welcome degree of stability.

Four out of seven seats were up for grabs in Denver's first school board election since the district reinstated neighborhood schools after decades of court-ordered busing. Voters re-elected both incumbents on the Nov. 4 ballot and installed two new members with views on bilingual education and neighborhood schools that are philosophically similar to those of current members.

"The voters who turned out showed they have confidence in the way the current board is going," said Pam Webber, who heads the district's Parent Teacher Student Association. "People haven't felt that way about the Denver public schools in a long time."

Sadie Dennard

Receiving 55 percent of the vote in his district, incumbent Bennie Milliner beat challenger Sherdyne Cornish by the closest margin of the race. Ms. Cornish, who is black, is a district math teacher who filed a lawsuit against the district last spring and has criticized the way the district educates its minority students. Seventy percent of the 65,000 students in the Denver district are nonwhite.

Mr. Milliner said that while he is pleased with the win, his relatively narrow margin of victory tells him he must communicate more effectively with his constituents.

"I hope I can show the district that I will truly represent the interests of the blacks and Hispanics in this community," Mr. Milliner, who is black, said.

With 50 percent of the vote, incumbent Lee White soundly defeated three challengers for his at-large seat, including Lee McClendon, whose past conviction for child molestation had been an issue in the race.

Mr. White said the results of the election will allow the board to remain cohesive in its mission to boost the quality of education for all children in the district.

"We are not going to turn the pages back to the segregated days of the past," Mr. White said.

Status Quo in Atlanta

Atlanta voters also cast their ballots in favor of the status quo, re-electing five of the six incumbents who ran for a second term on the school board.

The sixth incumbent, Jean Dodd, faces a Nov. 25 runoff against former school board member D.F. Glover. Ms. Dodd received 42 percent of the votes in her electoral district, more than either of her challengers.

Bennie Milliner

--> In the past, board opponents have criticized the members as being too slow to implement change in the sometimes troubled, 60,000-student district. This year's results stand in contrast with those of four years ago, when voters opted to "erase the board," replacing six of the nine members, said Sallie Weddell, a community education director at APPLE Corps, an education watchdog organization in Atlanta.

But even as most of the incumbents held their seats, not all of the results reflected complete voter confidence in the Atlanta board's leadership. Winning just 300 more votes than her opponent, incumbent Sadie Dennard squeaked through to victory against challenger Anne L. Crawford, a retired teacher.

"The turnout was low in general, and I think that impacted my race," Ms. Dennard said. "I've taken a little heat for not running a more aggressive campaign. I didn't think we had any serious competition."

Ms. Dennard's narrow victory may be attributable to the poverty of the residents of her electoral district, Ms. Weddell suggested.

"People are frustrated with the intractable problems of the city and district," Ms. Weddell said. "They don't understand how long the [reform] process takes. They think it can happen in four years."

Ballot Referendums

The off-year elections also featured a number of local ballot referendums.

In the 29,000-student Orange Unified School District near Los Angeles, 85 percent of voters said they support the district's decision to replace its bilingual education program with one that immerses all students in English-language education. ("Plan To Curb Bilingual Ed. Progresses in Calif.," Oct. 15, 1997.)

Prior to the vote, opponents of the district's immersion program said they feared that the referendum's passage would boost the chances for a proposed statewide ballot initiative to end mandatory bilingual education in California, said Neil McKinnon, the assistant superintendent for the Orange Unified district.

"Everybody's watching us," Mr. McKinnon said.

In Colorado, a state that has become increasingly pinched by growing enrollments, voters passed a total of $560 million in bonds for local school repairs and construction. The biggest winner was the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, near Denver, where voters passed a $265 million bond.

In monetary terms, voters approved a high percentage of the $695 million in bonds that the state's districts requested. But voters rejected bonds in 10 of the 22 districts that held referendums.

Most of the districts where bonds failed are small and relatively poor and badly need the money, according to Phil Fox, the associate director of the Colorado Association of School Executives.

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