The four politically motivated referendums initiated by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) have enjoyed widespread news coverage for several months. But there is a fifth referendum proposal that many people may know little about.
The first referendum proposal made by a body other than a political party passed the first signature threshold on Oct. 16.
The Kaohsiung Teachers Association's proposal seeks to reduce the maximum size of primary and junior high school classes to 25 pupils by the 2011 school year, down from 35 pupils.
The issue may seem less newsworthy than the proposals on UN membership or corruption, but if the referendum is held it would mark the first time that residents in Kaohsiung have exercised their civil rights to decide on a social issue. And the proposal has not been without hiccups.
The Statute Governing Kaohsiung Referendums (高雄市公民投票自治條例) states that a proposal must be endorsed by at least 0.5 percent of the eligible voters in the last Kaohsiung mayoral election, or 5,464 people, to progress to the second stage.
The association began its campaign in January last year, hoping that the referendum could be held in conjunction with last December's Kaohsiung mayoral election.
But that did not happen.
It took the association six months to collect 5,646 signatures, almost 200 more than required, but the complicated administrative review procedure took another year, three months and 20 days before the proposal was finally established, said Jen Huai-ming (任懷鳴), executive secretary of the association.
"The time taken to review the [association's] proposal was about six times longer than that taken to review the DPP's proposed referendum on seeking UN membership using the name `Taiwan' -- two months and 17 days," Jen said.
"The Referendum Law [公投法] states that the [the association's] referendum proposal needs to win more than 560,000 affirmative votes [more than half of the valid votes in Kaohsiung] to pass. If [our] referendum were held independently, it could fail because of low turnout," said Hsueh Tsung-huang (薛宗煌), president of the association.
As a result, the association is hoping to hold its referendum during voting in the presidential poll in March, Jen said.
But with less than five months to go before the presidential election, the association is now racing against the clock to collect the 54,634 signatures it needs -- representing 5 percent of the city's eligible voters -- for its referendum to take place.
"We hope to complete the signature drive by the end of the year," Jen said. "With the review process and the public hearings still needing to be held, we are on a tight schedule."
The Kaohsiung City Government, however, does not support the association's proposal.
Cheng Ying-yao (鄭英耀), director of the city's Education Bureau, said the goal of the proposed referendum -- scaling down the size of classes -- will be achieved "naturally" as a result of the declining birth rate.
Cheng said that if the referendum were to pass, the increased demand for teachers and classrooms could cost the city government an additional NT$6.3 billion (US$194 million).
"We need to consider whether the budget can be better spent on something else," Cheng said.
But for the association, the referendum proposal is a long-cherished dream.
"We first proposed reducing class sizes to 25 students 13 years ago and we are hoping to realize this goal by 2011. We have actually prolonged the realization of this dream by almost 20 years," Jen told the Taipei Times.
Jen said the greatest difference the referendum could bring about would be that teachers spend more time paying attention to the needs of individual students. This could benefit students from economically disadvantaged families in particular, Jen said.
"A survey published by the [Chinese-language] CommonWealth magazine [in September] found that Kaohsiung City's expenditure on education is insufficient," Jen said.
Jen was referring to the magazine's annual comparative ratings of the living environments in the country's cities and counties (Kinmen and Matsu were excluded because of incomplete data).
The survey was conducted among 10,225 people between June 30 and July 31, with between 385 and 435 respondents taking part in each city and county.
The survey put Kaohsiung City in last place in terms of the ratio of its expenditure on education, culture and science to its total expenditure last year.
The city ranked 21st in terms of residents' perception of the mayor's devotion to improving education.
"If the referendum passed, it would not place a great financial burden on the city government," Jen said. "Besides, this is necessary expenditure."
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