Education

Voters Send Varied Signals In Local Races

By Catherine Gewertz — November 13, 2002 5 min read
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Voters in Cleveland and in Hartford, Conn., extended or expanded their mayors’ control of the cities’ schools last week, while voters in Los Angeles and Houston agreed to pay higher taxes to rebuild or repair school buildings.

A NATION DECIDES

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A proposed school bond issue in Cincinnati, however, went down to defeat, as did an attempt to tip the balance of power on the San Diego school board against the superintendent.

In a widely watched test of whether citizens believe they should directly choose their school leaders, Cleveland voters decided overwhelmingly that their mayor should continue appointing the chief executive officer of the schools and the nine-member school board.

The vote on Issue 4, favored by 72 percent of voters with 28 percent opposed, keeps the system of mayoral control in effect indefinitely. The Ohio legislature mandated the structure in 1998 in an attempt to rescue the troubled, 77,000-student district, and required voters to weigh in on the change this year.

Opponents built their campaign around the argument that mayoral control deprives citizens of their voting rights. But the measure’s supporters countered that citizens still could exercise their power over schools and other city affairs through their votes for mayor.

Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who was appointed the district’s CEO by former Mayor Michael R. White in 1998 and now serves under Mayor Jane L. Campbell, recently signed a two-year contract extension. She had planned to step down if voters chose to return to an all-elected school board. But the results of the election, and the conversations she had with voters as she campaigned for Issue 4, have redoubled her commitment to the district, she said last week.

“Everywhere I went, people were telling me they know we are moving in the right direction, that they believe our schools are safer, that they know we are hitting more proficiency targets, that we are better financially,” Ms. Byrd-Bennett said.

“It is exciting to know our message is getting out. But it’s humbling, too, because they told me, ‘We are counting on you to do this.’ There is absolutely no way I’d leave now,” the schools chief added.

In Hartford, voters chose four new school board members, the first elected school representatives after five years of state control for the 24,500- student district. The mayor will appoint three members by early December.

But the board lineup will shift in 2005 as a result of a city charter change that voters in the Connecticut capital also approved. Under the new charter, the board will expand from seven to nine members, with the mayor appointing five and voters choosing four.

Construction Money

Two major school bonds won voter approval in the Sun Belt, paving the way for major building projects in Los Angeles and Houston.

Los Angeles voters passed the $3.3 billion Proposition K by a 2-1 ratio, unofficial results showed, while Proposition 47, a $13 billion statewide bond issue that includes pivotal matching funds for the Los Angeles project, passed by a similar ratio.

District leaders greeted the vote with relief, since the 112,000 additional classroom seats to be created by the construction project are sorely needed in the overcrowded, 737,000-student district, whose growth is projected to top 10,000 or more annually during the next five to 10 years.

Houston’s $808 million bond issue also passed by a 2-1 ratio, enabling the 210,000-student district to move forward on plans to replace 20 schools and renovate or expand 40 others.

But a proposed $480 million bond issue put forth by the Cincinnati school district was narrowly defeated, with 50.8 percent of the voters against it. The bond would have helped finance a 10- year, 66-school building and renovating project that is already under way in the 42,000-student system.

District leaders said they have enough money to finish most of the project’s first phase, which will build 15 new schools and renovate two, but they were already planning to put another bond proposal before voters next year to help finance the rest of the $1 billion project.

In San Diego, voters cast their ballots in a local school board race that drew national attention for its potential to change the course of the district’s closely watched school improvement efforts.

With two seats up for grabs on the five-person panel, one pair of candidates opposed the policies of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin, a former federal prosecutor, while another pair backed them. (“Teachers Seek School Board Overhaul,” Oct. 30, 2002.)

Split Decision

In the end, though, voters picked one candidate from each pair: Katherine Nakamura, a lawyer who generally supports the superintendent, and John deBeck, an incumbent and one of Mr. Bersin’s harshest critics. The result continues the San Diego board’s long-standing 3-2 split in favor of the superintendent’s focus on teaching basic skills and giving educators intensive training.

Groups and individuals spent more than $1 million to try to influence the outcome of the races. The San Diego Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association and a strong opponent the superintendent’s efforts, made an unprecedented effort to elect the two anti-Bersin candidates, including paying for television commercials that ran in the campaign’s final days.

The two pro- Bersin candidates enjoyed significant support from area business leaders and the local Republican Party.

Ginger Hovenic, the president of San Diego’s Business Roundtable for Education, said the mixed election results show voters want a sense of “balance” on the school board.

“I don’t want business as usual,” said Ms. Hovenic, whose group is an offshoot of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. “I want people to start looking at the issues and to be thoughtful, and reflective, and good problem-solvers.”

Assistant Editor Jeff Archer contributed to this story.

A version of this article appeared in the November 13, 2002 edition of Education Week as Voters Send Varied Signals In Local Races

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