Buoyed by overwhelming support from Latino voters and a widely held view among voters that education should be a higher priority for the city, a $2.4-billion bond to repair Los Angeles' dilapidated schools appeared to have won the two-thirds majority needed for passage Tuesday.
Proposition BB, representing a property tax boost of about $66 a year for the average homeowner, would repair and upgrade many of the 660 buildings in the school district, based on existing agreements with each school. It would provide money to make $600 million in long overdue maintenance, to air-condition 100 of the hottest San Fernando Valley schools and to build schools. It is California's largest local school bond ever.
With more than three-quarters of the vote counted, the initiative was running slightly over the two-thirds majority required for passage. The Los Angeles Unified School District bond measure had narrowly missed the required two-thirds approval in November, and many were skeptical about its chances this time around. But as the early returns made it clear that victory was within reach, officials looked hopefully--and gratefully--toward a profound and visible change in the massive district.
"This is really a chance for us to touch the lives of millions of kids," said school board President Jeff Horton. "Nothing else we could do is so concrete."
This spring's campaign, which used the slogan "Angelenos for Better Classrooms," put on a massive absentee ballot effort among those who had supported the bond measure in November, but who live outside the city limits.
The "ABC" campaign also targeted Latino voters, consistently the strongest supporters in polls, and through mailings and television spots it reminded traditionally reluctant Republicans of Mayor Richard Riordan's backing, which he had withheld in November.
Supporters noted that the campaign's fieldwork was concentrated in Latino neighborhoods, but its cash was siphoned heavily into mailers aimed at attracting backers of the incumbent mayor, a popular Republican in a largely Democratic city.
And the campaign reached out to its natural support base--parents, teachers and students--adding a last-minute television blitz to rake in undecided voters and bolstering the outside bond oversight committee to a level that secured Riordan's endorsement this time around.
Though turnout Tuesday was low, which was generally expected to be a bad sign for the bond, turnout among Latino voters was extremely high. And as results poured in Tuesday, campaign officials said the low overall turnout may have actually aided their cause by increasing the impact of the field effort focused on the Latino vote.
Two-thirds of Los Angeles Unified's 667,000 students are Latino, a factor that has been downplayed in previous district campaigns because so few of their parents are registered to vote. But this time, Latino voters turned out to be the initiative's most solid backers, according to Times exit poll data.
The campaign hired three bilingual field organizers, who directed phone calling and precinct walking in the city's Latino strongholds. In addition, the campaign's increased efforts this election to rely on its natural support base--the schools--may have further fueled Latino turnout on election day simply because Latinos are the majority in the schools.
Through mailers, phone calls and media, the message the campaign delivered to Latinos differed from the information used with most other voters about dilapidated schools. It emphasized that part of the bond proceeds would be used to build new schools in areas that are overcrowded--areas that are predominantly Latino.
Another key factor in the race was the apparent view of many voters that education had become the most important issue in the city. Times exit poll data showed that 42% of voters considered education the city's top priority, up from 22% in 1993. And among those who listed education first, 88% said they voted for the bond initiative.
But the campaign suffered several setbacks right before the election: the disclosure that thousands of students may have been exposed to hepatitis A in their school lunches, which campaign workers feared would reflect badly on the district; a lawsuit filed by Libertarians questioning the legality of the district's involvement in the campaign; and, perhaps most injuriously, a last-minute attempt by advocates of a breakaway San Fernando Valley school district to persuade voters to turn down the measure.
"Every bit of our experience with the L.A. Unified School District indicates that additional money will be just as badly managed as the ample revenues that they already receive," Assemblyman Tom McClintock (R-Granada Hills) said. "You can't fix a broken pitcher by pouring more money into it."
Meanwhile, in the race for three seats on the school board, incumbent Victoria Castro ran unopposed and her colleague Julie Korenstein won with ease. The third seat, which runs from the Westside to the West San Fernando Valley, was thrown wide open after board member Mark Slavkin announced that he would not run again. A June runoff appeared likely between labor attorney Kenneth Sackman and Valerie Fields, who was an education advisor to former Mayor Tom Bradley.
Times staff writer Jeff Leeds contributed to this story.
* OTHER RACES: City Charter overhaul wins. All council members are reelected. A17
* POLL: Turnout was low, but Latinos made up a record percentage of the voters. A17