Much at Stake for Schools In Local Elections

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The hotly contested presidential race may be dominating the election landscape this fall, but voters in communities nationwide will cast ballots on a range of questions on Nov. 7 that could influence their local schools for years to come.

From a complete overhaul of the District of Columbia school board to multimillion-dollar bond issues in California, Colorado, and North Carolina, much is at stake for local schools this election season. In San Diego, local business leaders hope to oust a school board member who is often at odds with the city's schools chief, while parents in Englewood, N.J., are seeking to wrest control of their district away from their mayor.

One of the most noteworthy contests is taking place in the nation's capital, where voters will help complete the reform of that city's school board by electing five board members, including its first elected board president.

In a special election last June, Washington voters narrowly approved a plan to reduce the size of the board from 11 elected members to nine members, five of whom will be elected and four appointed by the mayor. Mayor Anthony A. Williams will announce his selections following next month's election.

When the hybrid board takes office in January, it will regain control of the school system and its 72,000 students. The elected board has been serving in a diminished role since 1996, when the federally appointed financial-control board that oversees much of the city government's operations declared the district in crisis.

It remains unclear how the election will affect newly appointed Superintendent Paul L. Vance, who was given a two-year contract by the financial-control board in July after Arlene Ackerman accepted the top schools post in San Francisco.

Michele Seligman, the mayor's senior education policy adviser, said that Mr. Vance's contract should remain valid, but that the new board could challenge it. Still, she said, "we hope that they don't make that change."

Board Race Looms Large

In the absence of a mayoral race or any tight City Council races in Washington, this year's school board race has attracted heightened interest, especially since there could be a complete turnover of its membership. With the city's voting districts reconfigured, six incumbents are running for the five open seats.

The most closely watched race, however, is for board president. Three candidates are vying for the board's only at-large post, including the Rev. Robert G. Childs, the current board president.

Mr. Childs said having voters choose the board's next president directly could help keep the panel focused on education rather than internal politics. In the past, the president was elected by the board members.

Power to the People?

While Washington residents have given their mayor a greater role in school affairs, residents in the New York City suburb of Englewood, N.J., want to stop their mayor from appointing board members.

Frustrated with the low test scores of the city's public school students, a small group of Englewood parents collected more than 1,000 petition signatures to place a measure on the fall ballot that would change the seven-member appointed school board to an elected one. The district has never had an elected school board.

The measure has set off a debate about race and class in the diverse community, which includes some highly affluent neighborhoods as well as some poor ones. Many parents with means send their children to private or parochial schools. While about 55 percent of the city's 30,000 residents are members of minority groups, the enrollment of the 2,700- student district is about 97 percent minority.

Idelma Diaz O'Rourke, a parent who sends her son to a private school, said residents need a voice in determining how schools are run. Ms. O'Rourke helped found Concerned Residents of Englewood, along with some parents of public school children, to pursue the ballot measure. She said Mayor Paul T. Fader's appointments have perpetuated the district's failures.

But Wellner W. Anderson, the Englewood school board president, describes Ms. O'Rourke's group as "uninformed individuals" seeking to drive down the city's property-tax rate. He said the school system is on the right track, with new magnet programs and improving test scores.

Mayor Fader, a Democrat, claimed that the city's wealthy white residents are financing the effort. "This is not a grassroots movement," he added.

Elsewhere, in San Diego, local business leaders are trying to defeat board member Frances O'Neill Zimmerman, who they say opposes the district's back-to-basics effort to improve student achievement. Ms. Zimmerman, a vocal critic of Superintendent Alan D. Bersin, is running for a second term on the five-member board.

The business leaders contributed about $500,000 to form the Partnership for Student Achievement, a political action committee that is paying for a television advertisement that criticizes Ms. Zimmerman and displays the telephone number of her home office.

John W. Johnson, the partnership's chairman and the president of the city's Urban League, said the ad's purpose is to rally support for Mr. Bersin's plans for the 141,000-student district.

"It was never against her," he said of Ms. Zimmerman. "It was never political."

But Ms. Zimmerman called the ad an unethical bid to secure a fourth pro-business vote on the board. Closing large real estate deals requires the approval of four members, she noted.

The board's other two incumbents are running for re- election on a three-candidate ticket along with Ms. Zimmerman's opponent.

"It's an unbelievable hijacking of the school board race and of the education of students in the city," she said of the ad.

Millions for Construction

Meanwhile, a number of school districts across the nation are counting on voter support for bond issues to upgrade aging schools and build new ones to accommodate growth.

Residents in fast-growing Douglas County, Colo., will consider a $178.2 million bond issue to build 10 new schools and renovate nine others. Enrollment in the district, which is located between Denver and Colorado Springs, has almost tripled in 10 years, from 13,000 students in 1990 to 35,000 this year.

Elsewhere, districts that aren't grappling with such growth need money to renovate existing facilities.

The San Mateo Union High School District in California is making its third attempt to gain voter approval to modernize and repair six high schools. To sway more voters, the 8,200-student district scaled back its failed $190 million bond issue in 1998 to $137.5 million this year.

Thomas Mohr, the superintendent in the upscale Silicon Valley suburb, said the district's schools are from 40 to 70 years old and greatly need better lighting and ventilation, as well as more space to accommodate computers.

Although the Douglas County and San Mateo districts are facing no organized opposition to their efforts, other school systems are trying to win over those who have supported anti-tax campaigns in the past.

Proponents of a $500 million school bond referendum in Wake County, N.C., have enlisted opponents of a failed 1999 measure in this year's campaign.

Kristin Wood, a spokeswoman for the 98,000- student district, said public opinion is more favorable to this year's proposal which was scaled back from the $650 million plan rejected last yearperhaps in part because the new measure does not require a tax increase. Another reason, she said, is that the district "pulled in the opposition and had them involved in the plan from the very beginning. I think that made a big difference."

Vol. 20, Issue 8, Page 5

Published in Print: October 25, 2000, as Much at Stake for Schools In Local Elections
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