Jackson, Miss., Voters O.K. First Bonds in 21 Years

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Handing the Jackson, Miss., public schools their first election victory in the 21 years since desegregation, city voters last week approved more than $57 million in bond requests. With a total of more than $74 million in requested funding, the referendum was the largest in state history. It was divided into 10 separate projects, ranging from renovations throughout the city schools to lights at soccer fields.

Five items reached the 60 percent voter support required for approval. The other measures were rejected, but each did manage to win a simple majority of votes.

School officials hailed the bond vote as a significant triumph for an education program that was hit hard by "white flight" when federal courts ordered desegregation in 1970. "We did something that has never been done in Jackson before," said Elayne Hayes-Anthony, executive director of public information for the Jackson Public Schools and coordinator of the bond campaign. "We were able to bring blacks and whites together for a common cause, and that cause is education."

"Having to get 60 percent of the vote is not an easy task," observed Superintendent Benjamin Canada. He said the referendum marked a new era of harmony in the city, as both public and private educators joined forces with parents to win wide popular support.

"It proves that Mississippi is changing," Mr. Canada said.

The bond vote will provide $29.6 million for renovations, including such basics as heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning; $12 million for science laboratories in several schools; and $10 million for new construction at existing schools.

Voters also approved $4.3 million for the purchase of portable classrooms and $1.3 million for new library books. A $13.3-million proposal to add computers to classrooms and a measure to increase school security were barely defeated. Three items related to improving athletic fields and facilities were also turned back.

Unlike earlier bond issues, this year's measure faced no organized opposition, school officials said. Until last week, Jackson residents had not approved a school ballot measure since 1964. Residents twice defeated the schools' most recent bond issues, in 1983.

Administrators said the lack of school funding, combined with cut backs in state aid during the last two years, had left the city's schools "in a less than acceptable condition."

"It would have been very, very bleak" had the referendum items not succeeded, Ms. Hayes-Anthony said.

Mobilizing Parents

Supporters of the referendum de scribed the vote as signaling a turn around in the city's relationship with its public schools.

An activist group, Parents for Public Schools, was credited for building much of the grassroots sup port for the campaign.

The group, made up largely of middle- and upper-class whites, has made strides in enrolling a larger proportion of white students in several neighborhood schools in recent years. (See Education Week, March 20, 1991.)

Last week's vote showed that the parents' organization also can mobilize
effective political support for the schools."

The group's nearly 600 members made about 1,400 phone calls the night before the election and averaged more than 50 calls a day to voters in the two weeks leading up to the election, said Gerald McWhorter, the group's president. The organization also bought news paper advertisements and delivered yard signs.

"I really believe our organization has been a factor in changing the perception of public education in Jackson, but I certainly wouldn't want to take credit for the referendum," Mr. McWhorter said. "It was truly a joint effort by many people."

Mr. McWhorter expressed the hope that the election will have far- reaching implications and will help remove an image of racism that he said has often discouraged companies from locating in the city.

"I think that, to a large measure, the reputation of Jackson was on the line, and this was a truly historic day."

Private-School Support >(

The headmasters of several private academies, some of which were created to serve white students who abandoned the public schools during the process of desegregation, also endorsed the bond referendum.

About 9 percent of the city's students attend private schools.

"We were highly supportive be cause we feel that public education certainly is the future of our city as well as our state," said J. Peter Jernberg, headmaster of Jackson Academy, which was founded in 1959. Mr. Jernberg spoke out publicly on behalf of the bond issue and appeared with Mr. Canada at cam paign events. "The passing of the bond issue signals a refreshing spirit of unity, not only from the education standpoint, but also from the standpoint of healing racial relations," added Mr. Jernberg, who cited Mr. Canada's leadership in building a strong coalition behind the effort.

"Dr. Canada has demonstrated dynamic leadership and a very positive vision of education for the city of Jackson," Mr. Jernberg said. "By no means did we want to be divisive for public education."

Vol. 10, Issue 38

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