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Shortly after celebrating her 18th birthday, Cheryl Mullen went to the county courthouse primed to do her civic duty and register to vote. But when the clerk asked the young woman her party affiliation, Mullen hesitated. Democrat or Republican? She may as well have flipped a coin for all she knew about politics. "What are most people around here?'' she asked.


"OK,'' Mullen replied, "make it Republican.''

Now, a decade later, Cheryl Mullen--wife, mother, and Democrat--is spending the fall stumping the small towns and rural hamlets of Lake County, Fla., as a school board candidate in one of the nation's most hotly contested local elections.

The five-member school board is dominated by conservatives with strong ties to evangelist Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. Last May, in a move that captured headlines in newspapers around the nation and beyond, the board ordered all 33 elementary and secondary schools in the district to begin teaching students that U.S. culture is superior to all others. The action rankled but did not surprise many Lake County parents. It was the kind of local school policymaking that has compelled a large number of parents in the district to re-examine their role in the public schools and to mobilize. Their goal: to reclaim the county's schools from the grip of people they say are extremists.

United in their purpose, the parents have taken different steps to ensure that the balance of power on the board shifts. They have formed a political action committee. A handful has traveled to Tallahassee seeking state intervention. Some have volunteered to sit on school committees. Others just make sure they regularly attend and monitor school board meetings. And a few, like 28-year-old Cheryl Mullen, have even tossed their hats into the political ring.

'Come on, Johnny,'' Mullen implores her son as she zips around her in-laws' house. It's a Monday morning in late September, and Mullen is rushing to get the kindergartner to school on time. While Mullen puts the two German shepherds outside, Johnny searches his grandparents' house, where the Mullens are spending a few days, for his book bag only to discover that he's left it at his own home. Mullen tells him that he'll have to do without it; time is running out.

Dressed in a conservative suit, Mullen hops in the front seat of her green Toyota and sets out on the 10-mile trip to Johnny's school. Driving the roads of this gently rolling countryside, she passes small clusters of children waiting for the school bus. She voices concern for one little boy standing all alone. You never know what can happen, she says, even out here where orange groves covered the land until a killer freeze wiped them out a decade ago.

Since the demise of the orange groves, developers have gobbled up much of this central Florida county, located just west and north of Disney World, and have turned large sections into bedroom communities for nearby Orlando. The development has driven up the local school-age population. District officials were expecting about 500 new enrollees at the beginning of the current school year, but some 1,100 new students showed up for class, raising the total pupil population to 23,000. To keep up with the growth in the southern end of the county alone, district officials estimate that they will need to build eight elementary, four middle, and two high schools within the next 15 years.

A third-generation central Floridian, Mullen attended Lake County schools until her senior year of high school, even though she lived in a neighboring county. Her father, a carrot farmer, and her mother, a school employee, drove her to school each morning. "That's how much they believed in the Lake County school system,'' says Mullen, who makes a quick stop on her way to Seminole Springs Elementary School to pick up the child of a friend.

It was at Seminole Springs, located in the north central part of Lake County, that Mullen's political education began just two years ago. Like most parents, Mullen always took an interest in her children's work. She examined daughter Kristan's report cards and checked her homework. She also volunteered in Kristan's classrooms. But Mullen didn't concern herself with what was going on elsewhere in the school system. Over time, however, she began to hear rumblings among the teachers and other staff members at Seminole Springs about what many folks in Lake County refer to nowadays as "the majority''--shorthand for the three Christian Coalition school board members. Then something happened that touched Mullen personally. One of the majority members announced that she wanted to ban several Little Sunshine books--books that Kristan loved.

The board member, Pat Hart, wanted to rid the schools of When Itchy Witchy Sneezes because the central character is a witch. She complained that Quack, Quack, Quack is disrespectful of parents because the father in the book makes duck noises that embarrass his children. She also criticized Mrs. Grindy's Shoes, saying its portrayal of a woman who has misplaced her shoes ridicules old people. Curious and somewhat concerned, Mullen attended her first school board meeting.

The January 1993 meeting she chose was a contentious one. The school board voted to fire the district's veteran lawyer and replaced him with a former state senator named Dick Langley, who Lake County voters had ousted from office just weeks before. Langley had been targeted for defeat by the local teachers' union, which viewed him as an enemy of education. Now, he'd been hired to give counsel to the teachers' bosses.

Upset by the decision, Mullen arrived home to find her husband and several of his friends watching a sporting event on television. "Every one of you stop and listen to me,'' Mullen demanded, turning off the TV. She exhorted the men to get involved in the schools. "There's nothing you can do about it, Cheryl,'' one of the friends said. "It's politics.''

"You're wrong,'' Mullen countered. "There's got to be something we can do.''

What Mullen didn't know then was that large pockets of parents throughout Lake County shared many of her concerns. Strangers or only nodding acquaintances to begin with, these parents gradually began to come together to discuss their complaints about the school board and to stake out some common ground. During the summer of 1993, a half-dozen or so began meeting regularly to figure out what they could do to stop the majority. Gail Burry, president of the local teachers' union, noticed the growing frustration among the parents and invited a union associate from Tallahassee to meet with them and explain ways they could proceed.

In September of 1993, a small group of parents founded People for Mainstream Values, a nonpartisan political-action committee, or PAC, dedicated to engendering widespread interest in the next school board election and supporting moderate candidates running against those backed by the Christian Coalition. The group quickly grew to about 150 members.

Mullen's concern and commitment attracted attention, and soon parents throughout the county were urging her to run for the school board herself. She finally agreed, filing in February 1994. "It was a scary step for me,'' says Mullen, who owns a plant nursery. "I've never been in politics. I didn't know what to expect. I knew it would take a lot of time away from my family and my business.''

Nowadays, if Mullen isn't at a school board meeting, she's attending a political function. In August, she participated in candidate forums two nights a week, every week. There have been sacrifices. Production has fallen off at the nursery. At home, her husband and in-laws have had to pick up the slack. But they can't cover for her all the time. One night, as Mullen was dressing to go out, Johnny came in and asked if she was going to another meeting. He begged her not to go. "I just really miss you, Mommy,'' he cried. She stayed home. "He needed to know he came before my meetings,'' she says. Fourth grader Kristan, on the other hand, helps her mother campaign, handing out literature and urging people to "vote for my mom.''

Of the other parents involved in People for Mainstream Values, Dale LaRue is among the most active. Six years ago, LaRue moved with her husband and their four children from south Florida to Mount Dora, a historic community in Lake County. She soon became involved in her children's schools, serving on PTAs and the school-advisory council. But like Mullen, she didn't bother to attend school board meetings.

When Pat Hart was elected to the board in 1990, her provocative proposals didn't really upset LaRue. After all, she recalls, most people just wrote off Hart because she was a minority of one and didn't seem to be much of a force. But that all changed in 1992 when Claudia Ramsay and Judith Pearson were elected to the board. Suddenly, religious conservatives had a majority. It was then, LaRue says, that she and others started paying attention.

During their campaign, Ramsay and Pearson had hammered away on two issues that clearly appealed to Lake County voters, many of whom are senior citizens: They promised to cut property taxes and to bring basics back to the schools. In literature distributed in church parking lots after Sunday services, they portrayed their opponents as big spenders with questionable morals. Ramsay and Pearson defeated the incumbent candidates, one of whom did little campaigning because he was in south Florida helping with the cleanup following Hurricane Andrew.

After the school board fired its longtime lawyer, LaRue called a special meeting of the district's school-advisory council; a hundred people showed up. The council authorized LaRue to send a letter to the board asking it to reconsider its decision. The board didn't even respond. "A broad-based group of people in the schools were making [their dissatisfaction] known, and they didn't care,'' a disgusted LaRue says.

She and other parents began to look into the Christian Coalition, and what they learned worried them: Among other things, the coalition endorsed censorship, school prayer, and the teaching of creationism. LaRue points out that as a Roman Catholic she advocates strong families, values, pride in country, and a focus on children. "A lot of the things they want are a lot of the things that we want,'' she says of the majority. "But it's the way they're going on about it. All they care about is their little agenda.''

Recently, LaRue, a former "school volunteer of the year,'' decided to add her name to a lawsuit the teachers' union filed contesting the legality of the board's cultural-superiority policy.

Such anti-board activities have made her enemies. At a community meeting not long ago, one man chastised her. "You ought to be ashamed of yourself,'' he said.

The cultural-superiority mandate is only one of many controversial policies the Christian Coalition board members have proposed--and in some cases adopted--since becoming the majority. They blocked the establishment of full-service schools and school-based health clinics and denied a Head Start program temporary space in one of the district schools. They turned down a grant to fund an anti-smoking curriculum and related staff development, and they jeopardized a grant that would provide instruction in an alternative setting for suspended or expelled pupils.

In addition, they've opposed the use of deep breathing, meditation, or yoga exercises in classes as well as the implementation of a self-esteem curriculum. They've tried to force the district to jettison whole language instruction in favor of phonics. And they're currently working to outlaw references to homosexuality and contraceptives in family-life classes. At times, their initiatives seem to contradict state laws and regulations.

Almost every issue that comes before the board--whether it's something as sensitive as sex education or as mundane as employee retirement benefits--elicits controversy. "I feel like Alice in Wonderland,'' says Burry of the local teachers' union. "It just gets curiouser and curiouser.''

Hart, Ramsay, and Pearson, though, say they have been misrepresented and maligned by their political enemies and the local media. "They tried to portray us as a three-headed monster,'' Pearson says. A native Chicagoan, Pearson moved to Florida nine years ago. She ran for the school board in 1992 with four chief goals: to return the district to the basics--reading, writing, arithmetic, science, geography, and history; to hold the line on spending and taxes; to adopt "appropriate'' sex education materials; and to enforce strong discipline in the classroom.

"I like to think of myself as a patriotic Republican--flag-waving, mom-and-apple-pie, God-and-country, and all that,'' says Pearson, whose three stepchildren attended Lake County public schools. As far as Pearson is concerned, the so-called "America First'' policy was not designed to denigrate individuals; it was intended, she says, as a patriotic paean to the American form of government and its democratic freedoms. Some of her other positions, like her opposition to school-based health clinics, have also been mischaracterized, she complains. "At the outset, it looks like a good idea,'' she says of the clinics, "but some of the ones that I have seen end up dispensing condoms.''

As founding members of People for Mainstream Values, Julie and Bill Yandall were not the political novices that some of the parents were when the group began. In 1990, Julie Yandall had run unsuccessfully for a school board seat against another moderate candidate. The Yandalls' experience with school district politics has a decidedly personal aspect. They've had to fight their share of battles over the years to ensure that their son, Chris, who has a learning disability, would get the kind of education they believe he needs. "If you have a special education student, you have to be a fighter,'' says Julie Yandall, the PAC's treasurer. "I think basically we just got tired of going to school board meetings and getting things crammed down our throats. You can only sit around and whine for so long.''

The PAC's opponents--there are many in the county--have accused the participating parents of being puppets of the National Education Association and that "leftist Hollywood organization'' People for the American Way. A liberal constitutional-watchdog group, People for the American Way was founded by television producer Norman Lear. Such accusations, the Yandalls say, illustrate just how far out of touch with reality the opposition is. The local teachers' union is an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, not the NEA. And as for People for the American Way, the Yandalls have never returned any of the organization's calls. "I don't even know what their agenda is,'' says Julie, a Sunday school teacher who was recently made an elder by the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church of Leesburg.

Like many of the parents involved with the PAC, the Yandalls' initial interest in education was largely school-based. Julie volunteered at her children's school but rarely attended school board meetings. For years, in fact, hardly any members of the community attended the meetings. The board met in the central office, with many of the 60 or so seats going empty.

That has changed. Since the majority shifted to the conservative Christians, the meetings have been held in schools to accommodate the large audiences. So many people turn out now that the board requires anyone wishing to speak to register beforehand and to limit his or her comments to three minutes. At a meeting this past March, about 900 people turned out to challenge a board proposal to cut seven administrators from the staff. The meeting lasted from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. In the end, Pearson switched her vote, and the positions were saved.

While the Yandalls were at that meeting, a group of boys came to their house and gave 17-year-old Chris, who is learning impaired due to a seizure disorder, a condom, telling him it was candy. He believed them. The incident greatly disturbed the Yandalls.

Although Chris had taken the district's regular sex education course, the Yandalls say--and experts back them up on this--that the instruction and materials are too vague for special education students like their son. After the incident with the condom, Julie Yandall decided to join a committee of teachers and parents that was developing a sex education program for special education students. The committee members decided to screen a number of slides used in such special education courses elsewhere.

They had weeded out the slides they deemed inappropriate but were still in the process of fashioning a curriculum when one of the majority board members threw a wrench in the works. She announced at a board meeting that she was adding an emergency item to the agenda. The room was cleared of children, the lights were darkened, and a slide projector was clicked on to show the "pornography'' the district was preparing for its students. The sex education slides, including many the committee members had already discarded, were projected with little narrative. One of the photographs showing a physician checking a patient for testicular cancer was erroneously labeled a homosexual act. Julie Yandall could not watch any longer. She felt that she should have anticipated the reaction and done a better job communicating with the community about the committee's work. She left the auditorium and went home, sobbing. "I felt like I let everyone down,'' she recalls.

In the end, the board disbanded the advisory committee, and the special education project was abandoned.

Since the collapse of that effort, a new sex education committee has been formed. Made up of nine members appointed by majority board members and six by the minority, the committee has been ordered to recommend a new abstinence-only curriculum for the entire district. After four months of meetings, the two contingents are so far apart philosophically that they are still fighting over a timetable. Both sides appear to be biding their time, hoping that their candidates win the election.

Committee member Bill Yandall, who is chairman of People for Mainstream Values, sees his job as obstructing the conservative forces by manipulating parliamentary procedures and questioning even the smallest matter that comes before the panel. "My job,'' he says, "is to be the chief asshole.''

The tension between the majority and minority board members has existed for so long that there is little pretense at civility. The main order of business at today's hearing is to set the tax-millage rate and the budget for the district. At one point, board chairwoman Pat Hart pounds the gavel to drown out member Sandra Green. Green and Phyllis Patten--the two moderate board members--are talking out of turn because Hart refuses to recognize them. Patten and Claudia Ramsay squabble over SAT scores. Then Green and Ramsay argue over grant money for technology and dwindling funds for professional development.

Most districts in Florida have taken advantage of a legislative provision allowing them to increase the tax rate one-fourth of a mill. But not Lake County. Despite the protests of district administrators and other people in the audience, the board votes 3-2 to roll back the millage, thereby cutting $3 million from the district's $160 million operating and capital budget.

When it's her turn to speak, Julie Yandall uses nowhere near the three minutes allotted her. Your children, she tells the majority members, "are not affected one bit by the budget cuts.'' Hart's and Ramsay's children attend private schools; Pearson's children and stepchildren are adults.

The hostility many district administrators and teachers feel toward the board also spills over at the meeting. One administrator, forced to explain several times why categorical grant money cannot be shifted from one account to another, can barely contain his exasperation.

"There is absolutely no trust,'' teachers' union president Burry says later. "One of the things that really hurts is their calling anybody related to education 'educrats.' ''

Thomas Sanders, Lake County's superintendent of schools, readily acknowledges his frustration. The superintendent says the board majority constantly ties up his administration with endless demands for information and vacillating changes in policy. At a recent workshop, for example, administrators were told to draft for the third time an early-retirement policy after Ramsay vehemently refused to support any incentive plan that rewarded administrators for retiring early. She would not budge from that position even after Sanders and others explained that the plan would save the district money. By sweetening the pot, the highest paid employees would retire early. "If you want to punish administrators,'' Sanders told her, "you, at the same time, punish the school system.''

"The school boards I worked with in the past seemed to have more knowledge and insight into the schools,'' says Sanders, who has been in education for 33 years. "It's just over and over and over trying to get them to understand.''

Pearson, of course, disagrees with the superintendent's assessment of the board's acumen but acknowledges the antagonism between the majority members and the administration. "There is a lack of respect from them completely,'' she says.

The controversies generated by the majority's actions have had at least one positive result, Sanders says: Many more parents, businesspeople, and civic leaders are attending school board meetings and taking an interest in the schools.

It's the beginning of the fourth week of school, and the central Florida temperature has climbed into the low 90s. At Eustis Middle School, the air conditioning has broken down for the umpteenth time. The school is a maze of classrooms and portable buildings into which 700 students are shoehorned; 50 new students enrolled this year alone. Some teachers have as many as 38 in their classes. The roofs leak, termites are eating the gymnasium floor, and students have to eat lunch in 10-minute shifts because the cafeteria can't accommodate more than 150 at a time.

Consultants estimated it would cost $12 million to build a new middle school nearby and transform the existing buildings into a vocational-technical school, a facility the district sorely needs. The other option was to spend about $8 million to renovate and expand the current structure and leave it as a middle school. The school board opted for the $8 million renovation.

Eustis principal Charles McDaniel is worried. "Where are you going to put the kids while we're renovating the entire school?'' he asks.

Cheryl Mullen points out the 27-acre site, about a mile from Eustis, where she and other people had hoped a new middle school would be built. "They complain about our dropout rate,'' Mullen says of the board majority. "If they [offered] voc-tech opportunities, they could catch some of the students dropping out.''

Mullen's knowledge about the district budget, school construction, the curriculum, and just about everything else related to education and the local schools is clear evidence that the candidate has done her homework. When asked about school vouchers, she says she doesn't support them. But her reasons run deeper than the typical aversion to using taxpayers' money to support private and religious schools. "If I choose to send my kids to a private school, more than likely it's because of our religious beliefs,'' she says. Under a voucher system, she points out, the government would have more control over such private schools. "I'm not sure people realize this would happen,'' she adds.

Mullen has staked out positions on a wide range of other issues, as well. She supports the whole language approach to reading instruction, for example, but believes it must be combined with phonics. "I didn't think about these things before; my brain is crammed,'' she says, laughing.

Mullen finds little cause for laughter these days. She was not at all amused recently when a teacher told her that she wrote the words "snake'' and "witch'' on the chalkboard one day and then realized her job could be on the line if a school board member walked in. Nor is she amused that her grueling and bitter campaign has made enemies of people she has known and been friendly with for years. Not long ago, a neighbor asked if she could speak to the Seminole Springs citizens-advisory group about the possibility of building a middle school next to the elementary school. Mullen, who was chairing the group at the time, agreed but also asked the superintendent to send a representative to the meeting to discuss the disadvantages of such a proposal. When the neighbor heard what Mullen had done, she was livid, accusing her of being brainwashed by the administration and denying neighborhood children the chance to attend a nearby middle school.

"Here I thought I was being very levelheaded and fair, and I got blasted for it,'' Mullen says. It's important, she explains, for people "to listen to both sides and rule accordingly.'' In fact, that's one of the things that initially irked her about the majority board members: They didn't listen.

In 1991, Florida passed its landmark Blueprint 2000 education reform law. Among its provisions, the law required each public school to form an advisory committee to write improvement plans tailored to the individual school's needs. The advisory committee at Seminole Springs Elementary wanted to create a prekindergarten program and to eliminate standardized testing for 1st and 2nd graders. The school board rejected the plan. Hart argued that young children should be at home with their mothers, not in a prekindergarten classroom. And Pearson did not want the district to give up control of any part of the campus to a federally funded preK program. Frustrated, the advisory committee sued the board. In the end, a settlement was reached when the school board agreed to allow 1st graders to forgo testing.

Mullen was angered by the compromise. Before remarrying, she had been a divorced single mother trying to raise a child on her own. She would have loved staying home with her daughter, but she had to work to make ends meet. She knew there were plenty of other single mothers in her neck of Lake County who had no choice but to work and had few suitable day-care alternatives. The board, she says, "hurt the children at Seminole Springs'' when it rejected the preK proposal. The district needs board members, she says, "who truly care about the best interest of the children.''

Pearson largely blames the dispute on the unwillingness of school administrators and teachers to compromise. Besides, she says, the final decision rested with the board--an assertion that has never been substantiated because the lawsuit was dropped.

Members of People for Mainstream Values sense a real opportunity in the November school board election. Terms are expiring for three of the five board members--Sandra Green and Phyllis Patten, the two moderate members, and Pat Hart of the majority. To gain control of the board, the moderate candidates must sweep the election. The conservatives, on the other hand, only have to win one seat to retain control. (School board members in Lake County represent individual election districts but are elected at large.)

At the last minute, Hart announced she would not seek re-election. Then Patten decided that she, too, would bow out. That left 16 candidates--11 of them Republican--in the Sept. 8 primary. The controversy over the local schools revitalized the moribund Lake County Democratic Party, which fielded no candidates in the 1992 school board election. In this year's primary, Democrats challenged each other in two of the election districts. Green, who had originally won her seat as a Republican, switched to the Democratic Party and ran unopposed in the third district.

Turnout for the primary was 39.5 percent, the highest in Lake County in nearly 30 years. Run-down and sick, Mullen stayed home most of the day. But she, her husband, and some friends (who brought flowers and champagne) drove to the courthouse for the results after the polls closed. Only then did Mullen wonder what she'd do if she lost. A self-described moderate-to-conservative Democrat, Mullen had plastered the landscape with campaign posters, shaken hundreds of hands, and mailed thousands of pieces of campaign literature. Though running as a Democrat, she had drawn some support from GOP quarters. Her in-laws switched parties for the primary, as did a number of her friends. Two were so afraid they might die Democrats, Mullen says, that they told her they were going to rush out the day after the primary and change back to Republicans.

With no clear winners in the Republican contests, the top two vote-getters in each of the three election districts--a moderate and a Christian Coalition member in each--were slated for a runoff.

Mullen survived the Democratic primary, winning the largest percentage of votes of any candidate in both parties--69 percent. But Lake County is Republican country--Rush Limbaugh bumper stickers are as abundant as orange trees once were--and Mullen's work is cut out for her if she is to stand a chance in November's general election.

Following an evening school board meeting recently, Julie and Bill Yandall, Sandra Green, and several other members of People for Mainstream Values adjourned to a restaurant in Tavares for an impromptu strategy session. They were trying to decide what, if anything, the PAC should do about the Republican runoff election?

After some debate, they decided to have the steering committee write a letter to local newspaper editors asking them to use the term "radical religious right'' instead of "conservative Christian'' when describing the Christian Coalition candidates. Here in the Bible Belt, the term conservative Christian is a badge of honor--one that many of the parents affiliated with People for Mainstream Values would gladly wear themselves.

To hear the opposition tell it, however, Christianity is beyond the reach of any Democrat, conservative or otherwise. Judson Cauthen, a leader of the Lake County Christian Coalition, told a local reporter after the primary election that he doubted a person could be both a Democrat and a Christian.

One Sunday morning not long ago, Mullen was eating breakfast at Perkins Restaurant, a favorite haunt, wearing a teal T-shirt that simply said: Cheryl Mullen School Board. A woman walked up to her booth and told her, "We're backing you up all the way.'' But after the supporter left, the waitress approached Mullen and asked her if she was running for the school board. When Mullen said she was, the waitress told her that she pays scant attention to the schools because she has no children in them.

"But your tax dollars pay for them,'' Mullen said.

The waitress shrugged. "I don't know any names but Pat Hart.''

Although Pat Hart is no longer in the running, the exchange was a sobering reminder of what Mullen is up against. If she wins, she'll get right to work, she says. If she loses? First, she'll cry, and then she'll take a few weeks off to regroup. Win or lose, though, Mullen thinks her efforts have been worthwhile. "I know I have already made a difference,'' she says.

Like many Democratic candidates across the country, Cheryl Mullen lost in the November election; she garnered only 42.6 percent of the vote. Her two Democratic running mates also went down in defeat, although incumbent Sandra Green lost by a narrow margin.

But all three of the Christian Coalition candidates were trounced by their more moderate challengers in the Republican runoff election on Oct. 4. Pat Hart says she was not surprised given the resources and Christian-bashing tactics of the opposition--the teachers' union, district administrators, and a "biased'' media. "Those were odds that were too great,'' says Hart, who declines otherwise to discuss the PAC's role in the election or her tumultuous term on the school board. She pledges, however, that the people of Lake County and the nation have not heard the last of the Christian Coalition. "The Christian Coalition,'' she says, "will continue to let its presence be known.''

With the defeat of the Christian Coalition candidates in the GOP runoff, the work of People for Mainstream Values was done. All of the candidates it endorsed made it to the general election. "We said from the beginning that if we got safely through the primaries, we would work as individuals for whatever candidates we wanted to,'' Julie Yandall explains.

Mullen says she has no regrets; she's convinced she did all she could. For now, she plans to spend more time at home with her family and at Seminole Springs Elementary School. She currently has no plans for another bid at public office--but maybe someday. Meanwhile, she says, "I'll probably be in the front row at the next school board meeting.''

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