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Schools Prepare Fresh Set of Bond Issues

With a new, lower approval threshold of 55%, districts are optimistic about getting funding for construction plans. Other initiatives across the U.S. support public schools.


Leaders of California's crowded and aging schools Wednesday began formulating fresh campaigns to build new facilities, predicting greater success in future elections now that voters have made it easier to pass local school construction bonds.

"We're going to come back and give it one more shot," said Robert Reeves, superintendent of the Poway Unified School District in suburban San Diego, where three bond measures in 12 years have fallen just short of the needed two-thirds majority.

With education the top priority of voters, Americans across the nation were asked to consider a record number of school-related initiatives, many of them claiming to offer dissatisfied parents a choice in how to educate their children. As in California, voters in Oregon, Colorado and elsewhere tended to throw their support behind the public schools.

In California and Michigan, voters turned down vouchers to help children attend private schools while in Washington state they again rejected a proposal to create charter schools, a measure backed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

"Almost all of those [initiatives] that passed showed a willingness to spend more on public schools," said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst with Education Commission of the States, a research group in Denver.

In a closely watched race, voters by a wide margin approved an end to bilingual education in Arizona, a measure backed by entrepreneur Ron Unz of California. Two years ago, his Proposition 227 prevailed among voters to halt most dual-language schooling in the Golden State.

Supporters of the measure have complained that some Spanish-speaking students in the state have spent more than eight years in bilingual classes intended to serve as a transition to mainstream English courses.

California voters overwhelmingly rejected Proposition 38, which would have provided $4,000 vouchers to any student in grades kindergarten through 12th wishing to attend private school. A Los Angeles Times exit poll showed that strong opposition cut across all demographic categories. Only conservative Republicans supported the measure.

At the same time, Californians voted 53% to 47% to make it easier to build new schools by lowering the threshold for approving local bonds. Such measures will now have to garner 55% of the vote rather than two-thirds.

Exit poll data showed strong support for the measure among all age groups except the elderly. Whites were split on the issue, while other ethnic groups strongly favored it.

Voters in March rejected a nearly identical measure that would have required a school district to garner a simple majority to pass a bond measure.

Education officials in several districts were elated by a decision they called long overdue.

"I think we have a great opportunity," said Gary Goodson, superintendent of the San Gabriel Unified School District, where three bond measures have failed to earn the necessary two-thirds approval over the last decade.

The small district in the San Gabriel Valley needs to expand its middle school and its five elementary schools to accommodate rising enrollments. It must overcome opposition from anti-tax groups in the city, but Goodson is optimistic. The district won 63% of the vote two years ago, the last time it asked voters to open their wallets.

Passage of Proposition 39 was important to Los Angeles community college leaders, who are planning a $1-billion bond measure next year. College officials are burdened with a large backlog of repair and construction projects. The college district failed to pass a bond measure in 1991, falling just a few percentage points short of the needed vote.

Analysts say they believe the time could be ripe for school districts to win at the polling booth. They say three factors will prompt voters to spend on new schools: the healthy economy, the clear need for new schools at a time of soaring enrollments and strict accountability in the new law. School districts must specify what projects they intend to tackle with the bond money.

School districts have placed 817 bond measures before voters over the last 14 years, succeeding in 54.5% of the cases. Had the new standard been applied, nearly all would have passed.

Around the nation, voters used the initiative process to give a boost to public schools. They approved programs to help schools raise money, to give teachers cost-of-living raises and to leave teachers free to discuss issues relating to homosexuality.

In Washington state, a two-year grass-roots effort led by parents paid off as voters overwhelmingly approved the use of surplus revenues to reduce class sizes and to expand learning programs and teachers' training. Under the measure, lottery proceeds will be used to build new facilities.

Washington had been spending much of its excess revenue on stadiums and tax cuts for business, said Lisa Macfarlane, a Seattle parent of two who sponsored the initiative.

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