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Legal Challenge Delays Construction Projects

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Nobody in the Plymouth-Canton, Mich., schools seems to be celebrating the first anniversary of passing a nearly $80 million school bond that was supposed to pay for two new schools, dozens of computers, and new school buses.

Instead, the residents of that growing area are digging in for a long battle over one man's legal challenge to the March 1997 vote in the bond's favor. His lawsuit has forced the 15,700-student Plymouth-Canton system about 15 miles west of Detroit to halt most bond-related activity, even though several reviews have deemed the election free of irregularities.

Meanwhile, residents who campaigned for the bond are in emotional limbo, stuck between the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

"I'm frustrated and angry," said Esther Husling, a former Plymouth-Canton school board member who campaigned for the bond. "Holding 16,000 kids hostage is unconscionable."

Election Purity

At issue are 720 people who, according to state election data, entered the voting booth last March 22, but whose votes on the bond issue were not recorded. The $79.7 million measure was the only item on the ballot.

Election "undervotes" are common and can take place when confused voters leave the booth before voting. In the Plymouth-Canton case, the bond election might have escaped controversy, save for the bond's slim 95-vote--or 47.4 percent to 46.6 percent--margin of victory. More than 11,000 votes were cast in the single-issue election, and the undervote margin was 5.9 percent.

But local real estate agent Jerry Vorva felt that too many votes were unaccounted for, and he filed a lawsuit seeking a new election. He blames the 3-year-old electronic, touch-screen system for failing to count hundreds of votes.

Mr. Vorva, a 45-year-old former Republican state representative, is no fan of the local public schools, and even boasts of his decision to send his four sons to private schools. He insists, however, that he is not attacking public education, but is fighting to "protect the purity of elections."

Other residents have protested his suit, which is now before a state appeals court, by picketing in front of a project that he is developing.

Mr. Vorva is unswayed. He said in an interview that he was willing to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary. "Absolutely," Mr. Vorva said. "This is the kind of case they love. It's about my voting rights."

Such determination is an ominous sign for school officials. The once agricultural Plymouth and Canton communities are rapidly transforming into upper-middle-class suburbs of Detroit. And school crowding is a problem.

To find more space, art and music rooms in the district's two high schools are being converted into regular classrooms, said the district's spokeswoman, Judy Evola. The proposed bond-financed new high school and elementary school are desperately needed, she said.

No Money

The district, meanwhile, has lost more than $2 million in interest that it could have earned by depositing the bond revenue in a bank account.

And the holdup's effects are being felt by students, district leaders say. "Some people are measuring the impact in dollars," Superintendent Chuck Little of the Plymouth-Canton schools said. "But the real impact is in lost opportunity for students."

Work on the bond-related projects has not stopped altogether. A site for the elementary school has been purchased with existing district funds, and an architect has been chosen. But after a panel of citizens presents a report on bond projects, scheduled for next week, all progress will come to a standstill, officials say.

"There's no money to go forward," Mr. Little said.

Conflicting Views

Mr. Little fiercely defends last year's vote as legitimate. He said that voters simply failed to correctly enter data. Some voters reportedly distrusted the computerized system and walked out rather than touch a screen the size of a computer monitor in order to register their votes.

"There's a million different scenarios," Mr. Little said, "but the machines worked properly."

To date, he has found a lot of support. The election was upheld in August by the Wayne County Circuit Court. The Wayne County Board of Canvassers, a local election panel, and the state Bureau of Elections also upheld the vote after ballot recounts and equipment reviews. After studying the election last summer, Christopher M. Thomas, the state director of elections, wrote that the 5.9 percent undervote rate in the bond vote was "extremely high." He attributed it to voter error, however.

The next step in the bond's odyssey is a state appeals court review this spring or summer.

For his part, Mr. Vorva contends that state officials are reluctant to overturn the bond election because it could lead to challenges in other elections where the same equipment was used.

He also claims that tests on the township's equipment did not adequately account for glare and the difficulty that elderly citizens might have pushing the screens hard enough to register a vote.

"The equipment is junk and lends itself to problems," he said.

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