Bond Biz : Simi School Officials Try Song and Dance Strategy to Get Voters' Attention

Times Staff Writer

Simi Valley school district officials say they learned their lesson after losing a close bond election last year.

This time, the town hall meetings that the district holds to promote its position are short on statistics and long on shtick, with performances by singing and dancing students whose parents are almost a sure bet to attend.

The coffee-and-cookie Talent Night performances are just part of the district's campaign to pass two new measures asking voters to approve $43 million in school bonds in a special election March 7.

"We're making a major effort to get into the community," school board President Lew Roth said. So far, the strategy is working.

More than 200 parents showed up for a recent district presentation to watch their children sing, dance, play the piano, perform skits and lead cheers. The performances by students of four elementary schools and one junior high followed a 15-minute presentation by district officials and community members in support of the two measures.

'Really Too Intensive'

"Last year they had meetings for the school bond at every single school," said Pamela Spencer, the district's public relations coordinator who came up with the entertainment idea. "They were cumbersome, very long presentations that were really too intensive for the general public."

So instead, parents and students at the Sinaloa Junior High School meeting, one of four districtwide, got to hear a pint-sized Michael Jackson imitator, the first movement of Sonatina No. 2 by Clemente and an elaborately costumed flapper girl routine.

Paul Psik said that although he enjoyed the performance, he resented being lured to the meeting to see his sixth-grade daughter, Janelle, and her classmates from Abraham Lincoln Elementary School perform patriotic songs, including "America the Beautiful," in sign language. "I'm not convinced yet," he said of the measures.

Voters last year narrowly defeated a $35-million bond issue to repair aging schools in part because supporters took victory for granted, officials said. In addition, town hall meetings on the issue were sparsely attended, only a handful of volunteers were recruited and not enough money was raised to campaign effectively, officials said.

Simi Valley attorney Robert O. Huber, co-chairman of Citizens for Yes on School Measures A and B, said the committee hopes to persuade voters that the bond measures are a matter of city pride. "It's a community issue; we can't be real proud of the way our schools look," he said.

Volunteers Recruited

The committee has recruited more than 200 volunteers to staff telephones and walk door-to-door and so far has raised more than $6,000 to pay for a political consultant and other campaign expenses.

The 27 elementary, junior high and high schools in the Simi Valley Unified School District probably won't look much different even if the two measures pass, district officials said. Most of the $35 million sought in Measure A, about 77%, will pay for air conditioning and heating. The rest will be for plumbing, roofing and asphalt repairs.

"When it's cold the air conditioning goes on and when it's hot the heater seems to kick on," said Sinaloa Junior High ninth-grader Michelle McMorris, one of several students stumping for the measure by speaking to groups around town.

The district's nearly 19,000 students attend schools that are, on average, about 26 years old, officials said.

Measure B, which calls for an $8-million bond issue, would pay for three new junior high school gymnasiums and an auditorium at a fourth junior high, as well as a football stadium at Royal High School. Although voters could approve Measure A and reject Measure B, Measure B cannot be approved alone.

The bonds would be paid off in 20 years.

The combined annual cost of both measures to the average Simi Valley homeowner would range from about $20 the first year to a high of about $65, district officials said. The average homeowner pays about $120 a year on the $13 million the district still owes on state school construction loans, said Associate Supt. Cathi Vogel.

A bill sponsored by Assemblywoman Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) and passed Friday would, however, extend the repayment time of the existing debt from three to six years, officials said. The bill was approved by the state Senate 35 to 0 and is expected to be signed by Gov. George Deukmejian later this month, district officials said.

The extension would cut the annual amount now paid by taxpayers. It is contingent on passage of Measure A.

Endorsements for the two ballot measures have come from the Ventura County Taxpayers Assn., the local Chamber of Commerce, the area's Board of Realtors and local service clubs. Mayor Gregory Stratton is one of the signers of the ballot argument in favor of the measures.

But even with such widespread support, as well as no organized opposition, Huber and others said tax hikes are a tough sell because they require approval by two-thirds of the voters. Last time, the bond issue failed only by 100 or so votes, prompting frustrated school board members to blame the local newspaper, even though it had endorsed the measure, as well as residents who were given absentee ballots but did not return them.

Last Year's Opponent

The most vocal opponent to last year's bond measure, Ventura County Community College District board member Tom Ely, said he has yet to decide whether to speak out on this year's measures.

"Why should we be giving people responsible for the deterioration more money to handle when they haven't properly handled the money they already have?" Ely said. "But I don't want to deny educational benefits to students just because the district administrators and board are inept."

At least two parents who had come to see their children perform at a recent town hall meeting on the bond issues had similar questions.

"If you have a $50-million to $60-million annual budget now, why isn't the work being done with the money you have?" Gordon E. Micklos asked during a question-and-answer session Wednesday at Sinaloa Junior High. He said most districts in the state are making do without new taxes.

Roth said about 85% of the district's annual budget is used to pay salaries and benefits, leaving little for the needed repairs.

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