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An official count of petition signatures is four weeks away but groups on both sides of Utah's school voucher debate have started planning their referendum election campaigns.

Utahns for Public Schools - a coalition made up mostly of public school parent, teacher and administrator associations - formally announced Monday it had collected more than 131,000 signatures from throughout the state to put Utah's school voucher law up for a repeal vote.

"We believe the signatures we are submitting today are sufficient to meet the 92,000 threshold," spokeswoman Pat Rusk said. "The matter is now in the lieutenant governor's hands."

The Lieutenant Governor's Office has until April 30 to count valid signatures (those belonging to registered voters) and announce the outcome. If the office deems the petition drive "sufficient," the Parent Choice in Education Act will be put on hold and Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. could set a referendum election date as early as June or leave it to the 2008 general election.

In addition to planning campaign strategies, advocates on both sides also are weighing legal options. Expensive campaigns to sway the referendum vote likely will coincide with a legal fight over a second voucher law that isn't up for repeal.

Voucher opponents believe a repeal would nullify the second law, HB174, which lawmakers passed to make slight adjustments to the original law.

The Utah Attorney General's Office has said HB174 could stand alone. The issue will likely end up in court when one group challenges the Utah Board of Education's decision to either implement or ignore HB174.

Voucher supporters believe they will prevail in that argument. And the apparent success of the referendum drive doesn't surprise or discourage Parents for Choice in Education, a pro-voucher political action committee.

"This has raised the level of debate and we love that," spokeswoman Nancy Pomeroy said. "We believe we will win the election on the merits of the issue."

Pomeroy confirmed the group has campaign strategies "on the board," but declined to reveal specifics, saying only that they would be unveiled "fairly soon." So far, the group has spent $120,000 on network TV ads and up to $80,000 more on radio and cable ads, according to analyses by Utahns for Public Schools. Pomeroy couldn't confirm how much the group spent on the ads, but said it was likely less than $200,000.

She also dispelled rumors that Parents for Choice paid for the "Right to Work" ads airing on radio and TV in the past couple of weeks. Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, said his group launched the ads in response to complaints from teachers who felt pressured to join the petition drive.

At issue is the fact that representatives of the Utah Education Association are heavily involved in the referendum effort.

The UEA negotiates Utah's teacher salaries and handles their legal representation, leaving some teachers fearing retribution if they support vouchers.

Utahns for Public Schools denies claims that teachers have been pressured. Yet Parents for Choice has received some verifiable complaints of misconduct. In one case, a Davis School District high school principal urged all school teachers to sign a petition (and cited the superintendent's support) in a message sent via school e-mail accounts.

Such actions violate the law, but won't affect the petition drive without a legal challenge. Parents for Choice alerted school district attorneys of possible improprieties and plans to leave it at that for now, Pomeroy said.

Utahns for Public Schools believes it will prevail. The group, which said it has raised about $13,000 and spent money only on signs and supplies, will form campaign strategies this week.

"We're prepared to face any legal challenge that comes up," Rusk said. "We know this is just the first step, but we're going to stand on top of this first step and feel good about that."


* NICOLE STRICKER can be reached at or 801-257-8999.