Detroit District Stumps for $1.5 Billion Bond Issue

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The Detroit school system has pinned its hopes for restoring the city's decaying schools on a whopping $1.5 billion bond issue. But it is campaigning for the plan without the backing of the local teachers' union and key government and business leaders.

If it passes next month, the bond issue would be the largest ever approved by one of the nation's school districts, surpassing a $950 million measure approved by Dade County, Fla., voters in 1989, experts said last week.

The Detroit proposal is one of several big-city attempts to persuade voters on Nov. 8 to pay for what they describe as badly needed school renovations and construction.

Elsewhere, dozens of school board elections around the country may hinge largely on social issues such as sex education, school prayer, school desegregation, and the manner in which schools deal with homosexuality.

In Detroit, the nation's 8th-largest school district, the bond issue would pay for 14 new schools, including two 9th-grade academies, and expansion or renovation of other facilities.

"There are many more schools that require serious attention after years of constant use," and the 171,000-student district's current budget cannot cover their maintenance costs, Superintendent David L. Snead said this month in an open letter to school board members and the community.

Despite the unprecedented size of the request, the local property-tax burden for Detroiters would remain lower than it was before passage of recent changes in state law that were designed to equalize school funding, a district spokesman said.

As of last week, the Detroit Federation of Teachers, the Detroit Chamber of Commerce, and Mayor Dennis Archer were withholding their support from the bond proposal, saying the district needs to be more specific about how it plans to use the money.

"This is an instance where we don't think the administration and board are giving us and the public full information as to what they intend to do and how they plan to do it," John M. Elliott, the union president, said in a recent interview.

Much-Needed Repairs

In several other cities, concern over deteriorating facilities has emerged as a force driving changes in district leadership.

In Seattle, Michael Preston recently stepped down from the presidency of the school board, saying the move may increase the likelihood voters will pass a $332 million bond issue for school construction.

Mr. Preston has been caught up in a controversy surrounding his alleged mishandling of bingo operations for a youth group. He told local reporters that by remaining the board's president he might have drawn bad publicity that would jeopardize passage of the proposal.

In the District of Columbia school board races, challengers have been holding the three incumbents up for re-election accountable for the recent court-ordered closing of dozens of schools for fire-code violations. (See Education Week, Sept. 21, 1994.)

In Palm Beach County, Fla., and East Baton Rouge, La., candidates are being asked how they would use new school construction to foster court-ordered racial desegregation.

And in Cleveland, The Plain Dealer newspaper reported that school board members fear Superintendent Sammie Campbell Parrish may resign if voters reject a 9-mill levy. The proposal was put forth in the wake of last spring's trouncing of a 12.9-mill levy billed as needed to pay for desegregation and her sweeping school-reform plans. (See Education Week, May 11, 1994.)

Ms. Parrish did not return calls last week asking for comment.

A spokesman for the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools said last week that voters also will soon be asked to pass bond issues of $317 million in Broward County, Fla.; $215 million in Fresno, Calif.; $150 million in El Paso and in Portland, Ore.; and $115 million in Nashville.

The council's board of directors this month unanimously passed a resolution calling for the organization to step up its lobbying for more federal support for school construction.

Women's Groups Active

Elsewhere, many school board races have become polarized by debate over social issues.

Partly in response to perceived threats of takeovers of school boards by conservative Christians, a number of women's organizations have backed candidates who share their views on abortion and other issues.

When school districts in Santa Monica, the San Diego area, and elsewhere in California hold board elections next month, ballots will include candidates whose stands in favor of abortion rights and other women's causes have earned them the endorsement of local chapters of the National Women's Political Caucus.

Several of the National Organization for Women's more than 50 state and local political-action committees also have backed local school board candidates, said Linda B. Berg, a former member of the organization's governing board. The candidates endorsed favor abortion rights and support sex education, the distribution of condoms to students, and the elimination of gender bias in education, Ms. Berg said.

Where conservative Christians are running, their presence "generates publicity and adds strength to our arguments," said Nancy H. Zamora, the vice president for fund-raising for the California chapter of the N.W.P.C. The few thousand dollars in donations that can follow a local chapter's endorsement "makes a critical difference" in local board races, Ms. Zamora said last week.

Some women's groups that have not previously backed school board candidates are contemplating doing so to counter conservatives' election bids.

One such group is GWEN's List, a network of Florida campaign donors that takes its name from the slogan "Get women elected now." Donna M. Ballman, the president of the group, said it may get involved in school board elections to help defeat candidates backed by the Christian Coalition, the national organization founded by the religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.

The women's groups that previously have backed board candidates include the Minnesota Women's Campaign Fund; Latina PAC, based in Sacramento, Calif.; Task Force 2000 PAC, which focuses its efforts on the Houston area; and the Women's Political Committee, a Los Angeles group that boasts of helping three women get on the city's school board.

Not all of the school board candidates backed by women's groups have opponents who are backed by religious conservatives. In Montgomery County, Md., for example, none of the candidates have been labeled conservative Christians; nevertheless, the county now chapter has endorsed several candidates, said Ms. Berg, who heads the chapter's political-action committee.

Some women's groups, such as the San Francisco-based Women's Political Fund, back women running for school boards simply for the sake of helping them embark on political careers. All of the state and local women's organizations interviewed for this story cited this as one of their goals.

Recent years have brought a substantial increase in the number of such organizations and in the size of their membership and campaign coffers, according to the Center for the American Woman and Politics at the Eagleton Institute at Rutgers University.

Conservative Challenges

Conservative Christian groups continue, meanwhile, to flex their muscle in a number of school board races. Several have been accused of supporting "stealth candidates" they have not openly endorsed. (See Education Week, Sept. 28, 1994.)

In the Mission Viejo, Calif., area, the South Orange County Chambers of Commerce and a parents' group both have warned of such a campaign. They charge that the Christian Coalition of California seeks control of the school board in the 29,000-student Saddleback Valley Unified School District.

The candidates accused of being religious extremists reject the label, however.

In Orange County, Fla., a candidate who advertised on Christian radio and received support from the Christian Coalition won this month's Republican runoff for a board seat.

Moderate Republicans, however, soundly defeated three conservative Christian candidates in runoff elections in Lake County, Fla., earlier this month.

Vol. 14, Issue 08

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