THE Big Apple's school-board elections traditionally draw many yawns and few voters. By contrast, this year's elections May 4 are generating the highest public interest of any round in recent memory.
"People have been calling us and calling us," says Judith Baum, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Public Education Association, one of several groups trying to supply election information. "Everybody's trying to find out as much as they can about the candidates."
One reason for the interest - which is particularly strong among Latino voters - is that elections in the 32 school districts follow by only three months the highly controversial February decision by the central Board of Education not to renew the contract of Schools Chancellor Joseph Fernandez when it expires July 1. His efforts to introduce, as early as first grade, a multicultural "Rainbow" curriculum encouraging respect for homosexuals, and his support of free condom distribution in high schools were
Whether public schools should be actively involved in such social-policy areas is at the heart of the debate in several local races. Mr. Fernandez has urged close scrutiny of all conservative candidates and says his ouster is a wake-up call to the nation about the coming battle in education.
The Rev. Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, which has started several chapters here, has published 500,000 election guides spelling out some candidate positions on such issues as school prayer, the Rainbow curriculum, and AIDS education. Christian Coalition spokesmen stress that the group is not running candidates in every race. The Coalition is working in loose alliance with other conservative groups, including Protestant fundamentalists and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, which this week began distributing guides in its churches.
Liberal groups - such as People for the American Way, which is preparing its own list of candidates and endorsers, the SchoolPAC political action committee, and a new Clergy Council of eight religious leaders - have formed a countercoalition. They argue that a conservative win could lead to more efforts to ban books, reinstate prayer, and teach creationism.
Some analysts say the New York debate is a logical offshoot of the national cultural debate. "I don't see a contradiction between what's happening in these elections and ... in questions people are asking about the kind of society that we should be in in the future," says Robert Berne, associate dean of New York University's Robert Wagner School of Public Service.
"School boards traditionally have been battlegrounds for ideology from the left and right.... Schools are places where some of the political issues play out," he says, noting that the concept of formal, preschool education - which exists in the Head Start program - was once a hotly debated "moral" issue that many thought should be left to the family.
"What we're seeing is that the family-values debate has moved from the national level, where [former Vice President] Dan Quayle talked about it, to the local level," says Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Research Center.
Yet Norma Rollins, deputy director of the Fund for New York City Public Education, which raises money to support new school-improvement programs, says the focus on "moral" issues is often part of a candidate's larger political agenda and can work to the detriment of schools.
Some 550 candidates are vying for 288 school-board seats. The winners will have considerable power over budget allocations and appointments in the 800 elementary and junior high schools. The central Board of Education sets policy for high schools.
Even if they are not United States citizens, parents who have children in the public schools can vote with other registered voters. Contending that the 7 percent voter turnout in local board elections three years ago was "unacceptable," New York Mayor David Dinkins is investing $635,000 of city money in ads and postcards in what he calls a nonpartisan effort to increase the turnout rate.
One long-term aspect worth watching is the degree to which the views of Hispanic voters coincide with those of Mr. Dinkins, who supported Fernandez, or Rudolph Giuliani, who is expected to be Dinkins's chief GOP rival, notes John Mollenkopf, a political scientist at the City University of New York's Graduate Center.