In Local Races, Education Takes Center Stage

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In an election year when schools are a paramount issue for voters nearly everywhere, mayoral aspirants sound like school board candidates, and the debates between school board hopefuls are resonating more than ever.

"Education is a top concern, and it's spilled over into every type of race, and especially local races," said Dennis Friel, who coordinates local campaigns for the National Education Association. "It's a pattern shaping up around the country. People want to know, 'What are you going to do about schools?'"

In Denver, Miami, Washington, and other cities, the focus on education that is influencing campaigns at the state level is also playing out locally.

In several cities, mayoral candidates are addressing head-on an issue that many city governments have traditionally ignored. The trend follows highly publicized efforts by such mayors as Thomas M. Menino of Boston and Chicago's Richard M. Daley to tackle the tough problems of urban schools.

And in school board races and local bond elections, voters' concerns over the quality and cost of education are playing out. "Schools are a factor at every level," said Susan A. MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. "From the top of the ticket down to hometown politics."

New Era in Washington

Foremost among the mayoral candidates wading into education is Anthony A. Williams, the bookish, mild-mannered former city chief financial officer who defeated several veteran politicians to win the Democratic nomination in the nation's capital. The departure of Washington's retiring mayor, Marion S. Barry Jr., from the political scene touched off a free-for-all in which Mr. Williams, a political newcomer, rose to the top.

In his primary race, Mr. Williams promised a new high-tech high school, lower class sizes, and higher teacher salaries. His schools platform, combined with his experience in dealing with Congress and his reputation as a fiscal manager, landed him the nomination. He is favored to beat Carol Schwartz in the Nov. 3 election in the heavily Democratic city.

Ms. Schwartz, a moderate Republican who ran a tough race against Mayor Barry in 1994, opposes congressional Republicans' efforts to pass a school voucher program for the city and notes often that her three children attended its public schools.

In Louisville, Ky., Democrat Dave Armstrong, a county judge, is running for mayor against Republican Bill Wilson. Mr. Armstrong has promised to visit a city school one day each week if elected, even while conceding that he has no authority over the Jefferson County district, which includes Louisville.

"Education is a real focus in Kentucky and in downtown Louisville," said Bob Benson, Mr. Armstrong's campaign director. "Dave wants to call attention to the quality of Louisville schools."

For most of the last 15 years Mr. Wilson, who was a lifelong Democrat before switching parties last year, served as an alderman for Louisville. He cites crime as the city's most pressing problem and says that if the city would keep schools open after school and into the evening for cultural programs, tutoring, and recreation, juvenile crime and teenage-pregnancy rates would decline.

Spotlight on School Boards

School board candidates, especially in big cities, are also on the hot seat. Local press coverage, analysts say, has been heavier and more probing than in the past, and savvy voters are homing in on such specifics as class size, safety, vouchers, and busing.

"With education in the forefront of public opinion, school board races have been elevated," said Jay Butler, the director of communications for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. "In the past, school board candidates were the last choice on the ballot, where people would say, 'Who are these people?' But with the spotlight on schools, voters are seeing these races in a whole new light."

In Florida, for example, a state with one of the fastest-growing school-age populations, local board races have in many cases become a referendum on the new guard vs. the old, Ms. MacManus of the University of South Florida said.

"The public is clamoring for solutions and has grown more impatient with people on boards for a long period of time," she said. "They're tired of the same old sayings, the same old promises, and the same old excuses."

Upsets in Miami

North of Miami, voters in the 231,000-student Broward County system, which includes Fort Lauderdale, are electing board members for the first time from specific districts rather than at-large. There, school crowding and concerns over mismanagement were big issues in primary races.

Both issues loomed large as Don Samuels, a longtime board member and its current chairman, sought a Democratic nomination for one of the five open seats. In a major upset, he lost to Stephanie Arma Kraft, a lawyer and parent who ran her first-ever campaign on her "outsider" status. She faces no Republican challenger next month.

There were just two races for the nine-member Miami-Dade school board this fall, both of which were decided in the primaries. The 345,000-student system's school board has been elected by district rather than countywide since 1996. Former Opa-locka Mayor Robert Ingram, a Democrat, took one seat; no Republican is running for that seat. And Republican and former community council member Marta Perez beat incumbent Renier Diaz de la Portilla in a tight race for the second Miami-Dade board seat. No Democrats entered that district's race.

Though the federally created control board that oversees city finances in the District of Columbia stripped Washington's school board of most of its power in 1996, spirited races for the 12-member panel there have continued nonetheless. And the election may have new significance: The control board's new chairwoman, Federal Reserve Board Vice Chairwoman Alice Rivlin, has spoken recently of returning authority to the elected board over the next two years.

Given the record-setting growth in enrollments nationwide, John Augenblick of the Denver-based school finance consulting group Augenblick & Myers, predicts that bond referendums, especially in the most crowded districts, stand a good chance of passing.

"In many places, all you have to do is look out your window to see growth" and understand the need for new schools, he said. He added that passing bond referendums where the problem is less related to growth and more to aging facilities will be tougher.

Building for the Future

Among the largest bond proposals facing voters next month is the one in Clark County, Nev. Voters in the 203,000-student district, which includes Las Vegas, will decided whether to approve a 10-year tax freeze that would raise some $2.5 billion for school construction by not allowing the current tax rate to be cut as old bonds are paid off. Voters in the county, one of the nation's fastest-growing, passed school bond referendums in 1992, 1994, and 1996.

The Houston district is proposing a $678 million bond issue to build new schools and renovate old ones. The 211,000 district's last bond bid, a $390 million package in 1996, lost by a narrow margin.

In the 68,000-student Denver system, voters will be asked to approve a $305 million bond measure and a $17 million property-tax levy. The bond money would go to build new schools, repair old ones, and replace some old school buses. Most of the new property-tax proceeds would support literacy efforts, including tutoring programs and the hiring of reading assistants.

Coverage of urban education is underwritten in part by a grant from the George Gund Foundation.

Vol. 18, Issue 7, Page 5

Published in Print: October 14, 1998, as In Local Races, Education Takes Center Stage
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