Education a Central Issue In Philadelphia Mayor's Race

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Control of Philadelphia's 210,000-student school district has emerged as a central issue in a close race for mayor between a former Democratic City Council president and a Republican business leader.

That contest, and a campaign by a former Ohio governor for a seat on the Cincinnati school board, are among the most closely watched education-related elections around the country this fall.

The outcome of the Nov. 2 vote in Philadelphia between Democrat John F. Street and Republican business leader Sam Katz already seems likely to alter the course of the city's 5-year-old school improvement drive.

Though neither candidate has said directly that he would seek to oust Superintendent David W. Hornbeck, the architect of the Children Achieving program, both candidates support a proposal on the November ballot that would give the mayor greater control over the schools.

A recent poll showed Mr. Katz with a slight edge, with nearly one in four voters remaining undecided.

Differing Approaches

Both candidates have put forth their own proposals for the school district and its $1.5 billion budget.

Mr. Street, endorsed by popular Mayor Edward G. Rendell, who is leaving office, wants to expand the state agency that now oversees the city's finances, which once were in shambles, to handle the district's. In exchange for greater state control, Mr. Street would seek hundreds of millions of dollars in additional state aid to shrink class sizes, raise teacher salaries, make building repairs, and provide more staff training.

"The school district is now in a $100 million deficit, and by this time next year won't be able to open its doors," said Ken Snyder, a spokesman for the Democratic candidate. "It won't be able to get the bond it needs to keep the school district afloat."

Mr. Hornbeck, who came to the district as superintendent in 1994, has long battled with Pennsylvania lawmakers and Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, over funding for the district.

Mr. Katz, the Republican candidate, has proposed a variety of school choice options, including vouchers and privately run alternative schools. He has said he would seek full responsibility for the district's schools.

The GOP candidate "sees himself as the chief executive officer of the school district," said his campaign director, Bob Barnett. "He wants to take personal responsibility for making the schools work."

Mr. Katz would make the superintendent responsible chiefly for instructional matters. "The district has been clearly unsuccessful by allowing the superintendent to be the chief political officer," Mr. Barnett said.

The referendum, which both candidates support, would allow an incoming mayor to appoint all school board members. The board members would then serve during the mayor's four-year term. Currently, six-year terms on the nine-member board are staggered, a system that critics say leaves a mayor to work with people he didn't appoint.

A Governor's Return?

In Cincinnati, six candidates--former Gov. John Gilligan notable among them--are running for the three citywide seats on the school board.

The 78-year-old Democrat was Ohio's governor from 1970 to 1974. He also served a term in Congress in the mid-1960s and was an appointee of President Jimmy Carter.

Mr. Gilligan, whose own children attended Roman Catholic schools, said he was tired of watching the 47,000-student district struggle.

His candidacy certainly has put the spotlight on the schools, and he says he hopes to push legislators into creating a more equitable and adequate funding formula for the state's public schools.

As governor, Mr. Gilligan helped increase the state's share of school spending from about 30 percent of districts' budgets to about 50 percent. Now the number has slipped back to about 32 percent, he said. "I don't think we can continue to run schools as we did 40 years ago and expect much success," he said in an interview last week.

Mr. Gilligan says he has endured his share of criticism in deciding to run for office again. "My children led the parade telling me I was a lunatic," he said, but "I'd like to win."

He faces two incumbents and five other challengers for the three school board seats in the nonpartisan election.

In other education-related local races:

  • Two school board candidates in the 6,500-student Claremont, Calif., schools, John Hale McGee and Richard W. Bunck, have been linked by the Los Angeles Times to white-supremacist groups.

Articles in the newspaper have said Mr. McGee, a Baptist minister, preaches a doctrine similar to racial beliefs held by the man accused of a shooting rampage this past summer at a Los Angeles-area Jewish community center.

And Mr. Bunck, who with Mr. McGee co-hosts a local public-access television show, acknowledged in the newspaper that he had ties to neo-Nazi groups in the 1970s. But he credited Mr. McGee with steering him away from those groups and toward Christianity.

  • In mayoral races in Buffalo, N.Y., Denver, and Indianapolis, candidates are either supporting school board candidates or have made campaign issues of their views on schools and school leaders.

Vol. 19, Issue 8, Page 5

Published in Print: October 20, 1999, as Education a Central Issue In Philadelphia Mayor's Race
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