LOCAL ELECTIONS : Voters to Be Asked to Pick Up Tab for Education

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Voters in seven Los Angeles County school districts will decide Tuesday whether they want to pay higher property taxes to bolster education budgets trimmed by the state.

The tax propositions are among more than 100 separate elections around the county. More than 50 school districts will elect new board members, a dozen cities will select council members and seats on a handful of community college boards and water districts also are up for grabs.

Voters in the city of Walnut will decide whether to ban fireworks. The people of Hermosa Beach will determine the fate of a property once occupied by a beachfront hotel. And Burbank will vote on whether new facilities for police and firefighters warrant higher taxes.

Most school board and City Council races have been relatively tame affairs, focusing on the familiar issues of sensible budgeting, restoring classroom programs, and controlling development.

But there have been a few hot spots.

In the Centinela Valley Union High School District, incumbents have had to confront charges of racism. And Lynwood's City Council candidates have been beset by tire slashings, accusations of libel and the apparent poisoning of a candidate's pets.

County officials have not projected Tuesday's voter turnout, but expectations are that it will be light. In comparable elections in 1989, only 13.8% of the eligible voters cast ballots.

If Tuesday's tax measures reflect a common thread, it is that neighborhood and community leaders are looking for solutions that have not come from Sacramento.

"That's the message we have to make clear to people, that we have been let down by the state government," said Curtis I. Rethmeyer, superintendent of the Culver City Unified School District. The district is one of those seeking approval for property tax increases to buttress their budgets after their state funding was reduced.

"There are limitations on revenues coming into the state," said Rethmeyer, "and we in the local community can to some extent take things into our own hands and not let (programs) go down."

But passage of the school taxes is particularly problematic because they require a two-thirds vote. Of 96 such measures attempted statewide between 1983 and last year, only 37 passed, according to the state Department of Education.

The Culver City district has asked voters to approve a $98 property tax increase per parcel to raise more than $1 million a year, money that would help make up for the $2 million the district cut this year from an $18 million budget. The money would go to restore reading specialists, nurses, library hours, maintenance and supplies.

The Las Virgenes Unified School District--which serves Calabasas, Agoura Hills and surrounding communities--is asking residents to levy $150 per parcel to help reduce class sizes, restore elective classes and add a 7th period for middle schoolers.

The community group that drafted the proposal has sought to defuse voter skepticism by guaranteeing that none of the money will be used to increase the salaries of administrators or employees.

"It will return a significant amount of local control to our community," said Donald Zimring, assistant superintendent in the district. "That is what the citizens said they wanted."

But opponents of the Las Virgenes measure have suggested that Sacramento will eventually come through with more funds. "The state just can't sit idly by and watch our school districts go down the drain," said Diane Venable, a leader of the opposition.

School districts in Claremont, El Segundo, La Canada and South Pasadena will also vote on special parcel taxes, while Newhall School District voters will decide whether to issue bonds to be repaid with a property tax increase.

The purported failure of state government has also been a rallying point for the leaders of the proposal to ban fireworks in the city of Walnut, as well. Although the Legislature has repeatedly discussed fireworks bans, all have failed, usually in the face of heavy industry lobbying.

"Some people have said to wait and see what Sacramento does," said Greg Arakelian, a City Council candidate and backer of the fireworks ban. "I would love to see it at the state level, but I don't see it happening."

Hermosa Beach voters have no one but themselves to blame for the long-standing indecision over what to do with nearly an acre of beach front property once occupied by the Biltmore Hotel. The fate of the property has been before voters 10 times in the past 25 years, without any consensus.

On Tuesday, ballot measures will let the beach community decide whether to turn the property into a park or sell the land to a developer so the city can buy open space elsewhere.

In the Centinela Valley Union High School District, race relations has been the central theme. The mostly Latino school board in the South Bay district has been accused over the past two years of trying to get rid of some of the district's black employees. Last year, students walked out of classes in protest and more than a dozen black employees have claimed the district discriminated against them.

Now two Latino incumbents are facing reelection and voters must decide whether the past incidents were their fault. Board members Michael Escalante and Ruth Morales say no--that the racial animosities were a creation of a few troublesome employees, who have been transferred or fired for poor performance.

But Virginia Rhodes, who is white, and Debra Wong, who is black, say the racial hostility is real and that the incumbents must take the blame.

In Lynwood, issues such as race relations and the future of a utility users tax have been obscured by a series of ugly incidents. Challengers for two City Council seats, Margaret Araujo and Louis Byrd, both said their car tires were punctured after they announced their candidacies. Araujo found her cat and puppy dead one morning, and believes they were poisoned.

Meanwhile, Mayor Robert Henning has sued Araujo, Byrd and two others for $20 million, claiming he was defamed by flyers that called him "a ruler who exercises absolute power oppressively and brutally." The four said they know nothing of the flyers.

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