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School Bond Issue Fails by 1% in Whittier : Election: The $75-million option would have repaired school facilities. Backers concede defeat despite uncounted absentee votes.

March 07, 1991|HOWARD BLUME | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WHITTIER — A $75-million bond issue intended to repair and improve area high schools was defeated by less than 1% of the vote Tuesday in a special election in which only about one in 10 registered voters cast ballots.

The bond issue was approved by 66.3% of those who did vote, just short of the two-thirds required for passage.

Unofficial results Wednesday showed that 6,511 voted yes; 3,312 voted no. The measure would have passed if 37 people who voted no had supported the bond issue.

"Obviously, I'm disappointed. We put a lot of time and effort into this," said Paul Muschetto, principal of Whittier High School, the oldest school in the Whittier Union High School District.

"If we were talking about a simple majority, we would have won overwhelmingly," he said. "That is very gratifying. Unfortunately we came up a little short."

Election results will not be official until Monday, when all of the absentee ballots will have been counted, according to the county registrar's office. But Supt. Lee Eastwood said there is little chance the result would be overturned.

Proceeds of the bond issue would have been used to improve aging plumbing, heating and electrical systems and make repairs to athletic fields, gyms, stadiums and classrooms.

Buildings at the Whittier Union district's six high schools range in age from 30 to 69 years. The money would also have gone to revamp science labs, install computers, remove asbestos and improve handicap access as well as accommodate an anticipated enrollment increase of 1,500 to 2,000 students over the next seven years.

"Students will continue to have to walk around with buckets in the hallway when it rains to catch the water from the leaking roof," Muschetto said. "Students will still have to raise and lower the windows to control the temperature."

"We will make do," he said. "We will survive and continue to do the best job we can."

During the next 33 years, the bond issue would have increased taxes by about $22 a year for a home assessed at $100,000.

The district, which has an enrollment of 9,000 students, includes Whittier and Santa Fe Springs and the unincorporated portion of the county between them, as well as parts of Norwalk, La Mirada and Downey.

The district's voters tend to be older, and opposed in principle to tax increases, according to a survey taken by Price Research, a San Ramon consulting firm that claims an 87% success rate in helping school districts pass bond measures.

Because districts are not allowed to fund bond drives, volunteers ran the campaign. About 2,000 parents, students and district employees contacted an estimated 17,000 voters.

Volunteers tried to persuade undecided voters by phone and by mail. Mailers included pictures of the district's broken water fountains, cracked sidewalks and leaky pipes. The committee operated out of a downtown Whittier office donated by a realtor and raised more than $40,000 for the campaign.

The massive phone campaign specifically targeted voters between 21 and 45, those most likely to be or become district parents.

"We had commitments from close to 8,000 families saying they were going to vote," Eastwood said. "Every one of those families received at least two calls. They were urged to vote and obviously did not vote."

"There are 33,000 school kids in the greater Whittier area," he added. "Of those 33,000 kids, there's got to be at least 45,000 parents. And we end up with less than 7,000 people voting yes on this thing."

In the end, it may have been district grandparents rather than district parents that settled the issue. Bill Arsenault, for example, has lived in Whittier 35 years, and said he opposed tax increases on principle and that the school district couldn't be trusted to spend new taxes properly. "Even though I have grandkids that go to school, when you get older, you see things different," he said, just after voting "no."

The area's retired citizens, who worry about living on fixed incomes, are registered, faithful voters, said Whittier High School's Muschetto.

Across the state, voters have turned down about half the local school bond initiatives in the past five years, said Carol Ross, research director for the California Taxpayers' Assn.

Many bond issues failed because of the need for a two-thirds vote. Eastwood and officials in other districts have thrown their support behind efforts to lower that requirement to a simple majority. An Assembly committee Monday will discuss a proposed constitutional amendment to change the requirement.

"Who the heck gets two-thirds of any group to agree with anything?" Eastwood asked.

WHITTIER * Proposition A* ($75-million bond issue for Whittier Union High School District) 66 of 66 Precincts Reporting

For % Against % Prop. A 6,511 66.3 3,312 33.7

*Two-thirds vote needed for approval.

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