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Sorting Out the Local Elections | PROPOSITION BB

L.A. School Bond Stalls Oh-So-Close to Victory

November 07, 1996|AMY PYLE | TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

The most ardent backers of a measure to provide $2.4 billion for Los Angeles Unified School District campuses went to bed early Wednesday morning giddy with the knowledge that their chances of winning were improving with each new wave of vote tallies.

But they woke up hours later to learn that the upward momentum had apparently stalled less than one percentage point shy of victory, at 65.7%.

Instead of launching predawn plans to begin gutting one elementary school's bathrooms--as a tangible thank-you to voters and campaign supporters--district officials embarked on the more complex process of learning from their mistakes.

Though some school officials still held out hope with the measure just 8,000 yes votes below the two-thirds majority required in such bond elections--and many absentee ballots yet to be counted--campaign insiders conceded that winning was a longshot.

School board President Jeff Horton was more grateful than glum.

"This is really pretty amazing," he said of the nearly 540,000 yes votes out of 820,000 counted. "We are probably the most hated institution in this city."

Horton was among those refusing to admit defeat until all the county's 190,000 uncounted absentee and provisional ballots are tallied, which could take several weeks. "We're holding our breath," he said.

But it is unknown how many of those ballots came from voters within the district, the only ones eligible to vote on the measure to repave playgrounds, paint schools and install air-conditioning.

Similar capital improvement measures for schools passed in Culver City and Whittier, but failed in Paramount and the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District.

Discussion in Los Angeles on Wednesday centered less on what went wrong--because results eclipsed what many had expected--and more on how to build on the enthusiasm. Consensus was growing to try again as early as this spring, and negotiations had begun with the city to possibly get onto the April ballot, even though filing deadlines have passed.

Many California school districts that passed bonds began campaigning at least a year ahead of election day. And more than four months to get ready sounded heavenly to Proposition BB's campaign manager, Samantha Stevens--especially compared to the scant three months of preparation for Tuesday's election.

"So much of the groundwork's been done. We have all of the activists, all of the endorsements," Stevens said.

According to Stevens, the strategy for a spring election would differ from that used this fall for several reasons.

One key obstacle would be that local elections attract a greater proportion of conservative voters, who are the least likely to approve school bonds.

One advantage, however, is that turnout is lower in local races, so there are fewer voters to target and less demand on campaign volunteers' time than during a presidential election.

The network of school-based volunteers for Tuesday's bond bid only kicked in during the last few weeks, which some suggested was too late. Victor Hernandez, 17, a Dorsey High senior, said he learned about the school bond from his school's principal on election day. If he had known earlier, Victor said, he would have helped out.

"There's a lot of truth to what they say about the needs," he said. "At my school, you never know what time it is because all the clocks are broken."

Los Angeles Unified plunged into the bond campaign during the summer, encouraged by the passage of a statewide school bond last spring and by an opinion poll showing that voter approval was possible.

Among those not at all surprised by Tuesday's high--though apparently not quite high enough--voter support was John Fairbank, who ran the spring poll. Fairbank pegged support at about 68%, although that level began to drop once the cost to taxpayers was divulged. Homeowners would pay between $14 and $68 a year per $100,000 in assessed valuation.

Fairbank blamed the slight difference between his poll results and the outcome on something far beyond the district's control: lower than expected turnout among Democrats because of President Bill Clinton's wide lead.

"If Clinton and Dole had been close, we might have won," he said.

At the school district's maintenance headquarters, life went on Wednesday. Plans to overhaul the always smelly and deteriorating bathrooms at Vine Street School had been scrapped in favor of mundane daily chores: boiler repairs, plumbing mends and painting.

"It's frustrating," said deputy maintenance director Lynn Roberts. "It was so darned close."

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