Supporters walked precincts for hours every weekend, enlisted hundreds of parents and teachers in a well-oiled campaign organization, enjoyed broad political and business backing and mounted a massive absentee ballot drive. But when the election results came in late Tuesday, an $80.5-million bond measure for the Torrance Unified School District came up short--for the third time in less than a year.
"It's so frustrating," Gracie McKewen, a volunteer in all three failed campaigns, said late Tuesday as she stood, nearly in tears, with other bond measure supporters who had gathered at a Torrance hotel to monitor election results. The measure drew 63% of the vote, more than either of the two previous efforts but still lower than the two-thirds majority required for local bond measures.
"It was a great campaign. I just don't know what else you can do to get people to vote," added McKewen, who became active in the schools when her son, now a middle-schooler, was 2.
And it didn't help to watch as five other Los Angeles County school districts passed bond measures by large margins, with low turnouts and no organized opposition. Why didn't voters do the same in Torrance, a middle-class suburban community with a reputation for good schools?
In all of the county, only Compton--with its political leadership splintered and its financially and academically failing schools in state hands--joined Torrance in the losers column of school bond measures in this week's elections.
Experts on California schools have noted that increasing numbers of districts around the state are succeeding in mustering the two-thirds majority to approve bonds for renovating or building schools. On Tuesday, 29 of 49 such measures won approval. In Los Angeles County, voters gave a resounding approval to measures in Duarte (75%), Montebello (74%), Paramount (76%) and Temple City (72%). The South Whittier School District topped the list by pulling 82% of the vote.
These districts exemplify the "increasing sophistication" in local ballot drives, said Bob Blattner of School Services of California, a Sacramento-based education consulting firm.
"You identify your supporters and try to get them to the polls," Blattner said. With everyone else, he added, "you keep a very low profile, keep the election off the radar screen."
That strategy was not an option in Torrance, where a small but dogged and vocal group of opponents kept the pot boiling through three campaigns. They issued news releases about district spending, forcing bond measure backers to take time away from the campaign to "set the record straight." On election day, bond opponents hoisted a banner reading "Vote No on G" at Hawthorne and Sepulveda boulevards, one of the city's busiest intersections.
On Wednesday, a jubilant opposition leader, Rick Marshall, said it is time for the district to find other ways of fixing its decrepit schools, most of which are at least 30 years old and in need of new plumbing, roofing, electrical wiring and other repairs. Many campuses also must be expanded to accommodate a growing student population and a state initiative for smaller classes.
"Just like baseball, it's three strikes and you're out," Marshall said. He proposed a citizens committee--which would include members of his group--to help the district "cut the budget" and find ways to fix up the schools.
Many bond supporters and district officials, however, doubt Marshall's sincerity about wanting to work with them.
"The opposition's issues kept changing from campaign to campaign," said Mary Taylor, the Yes on G campaign chairwoman who has two sons in the district.
Supt. Arnold Plank said "the need is only going to get worse" and added that there is no other way to get enough money to cover the needs at all district schools.
School Board President John Eubanks was noncommittal about a fourth attempt.
"Where do we go from here? It's hard to say," Eubanks told bond supporters Tuesday night. "We all worked hard, and it's been a tough road. I can't say why we are not where we're supposed to be" in the balloting.
Marshall thinks he knows why.
"Torrance is conservative, with a lot of older homeowners who think the school district has a credibility problem," Marshall said.
The city of 133,000 is 66% white, 22% Asian and 10% Latino, with blacks and other minorities making up 2% of the population, according to 1990 census data. The median household income in that year was $47,204, comfortably above the countywide median of $34,965. Median home value was $338,700.
The bond measure, which would have cost property owners $25 per assessed $100,000 of valuation per year for 25 years, was the only item on the ballot in Tuesday's special election in Torrance.