Aside from the sales-tax referendum, Northern Virginia voters will cast ballots on another crucial ballot measure Tuesday: a $900 million bond issue for higher education.

If it passes, it will be the state's fourth ballot proposal for colleges and universities, and the first in 10 years. The figure includes about $54 million for publicly owned museums in Virginia.

Backers of the bond issue say the money is desperately needed to build classrooms and update and renovate existing ones.

"It's just like your house," said Alan Davis, a spokesman for Foundation 2002, a Richmond-based nonprofit organization that is pushing for the proposal's passage. "You want to remodel your kitchen but you need a new roof. Some of these things have been stacking up. Some of these things have been put off."

The bond measure would allocate nearly $80 million to George Mason University. Only James Madison University would get more money -- about $100 million. Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg would receive about $18 million. About $30 million is earmarked for Northern Virginia Community College.

At George Mason, the money would pay for two classroom buildings, one at the Fairfax campus and the other at the Arlington campus; renovation of two of the oldest academic buildings on the Fairfax campus; a new research building on the Fairfax campus; renovation of a university-owned building in Mason Neck that is part of the Peace Studies program; and an additional $3 million to upgrade utilities and improve access for people with disabilities.

Because the last higher education bond was passed in 1992, there has been very little new construction at many public colleges and universities, and maintenance on existing buildings has been delayed too long, said Helen Ackerman, the vice president of university relations at GMU.

"A lot of this is catch-up," she said. "Buildings have deteriorated and should have been fixed a long, long time ago."

She said the bond measure is important to the future of the schools, which enroll about 350,000 students and are expecting an additional 32,000 in the next eight years.

"At the moment, all of the colleges and universities will tell you they're filled to the brim," she said.

At Mary Washington, the money would be used to renovate or expand at least four academic buildings, a campus auditorium and a theater. Half the money earmarked for Northern Virginia Community College would be used to renovate and expand the Alexandria campus. Also included is money to renovate three buildings on the Annandale campus, replace greenhouses at the Loudoun campus and build an addition at the Woodbridge campus.

Schools' share of the money would be about $846 million; the remaining money would be used to expand and renovate Virginia's public museums, including a $28 million renovation and expansion project at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

Although there is no organized opposition to the bonds, supporters still worry that low voter turnout could defeat it. The only high-profile race is for the U.S. Senate, and incumbent John W. Warner is expected to sail to victory against two little-known opponents.

Most of the pre-election attention has gone to a another ballot measure that would raise the Northern Virginia sales tax a half-cent to pay for transportation projects.

The fate of the education measure is "really very hard to predict," Ackerman said. "My concern is people won't go to the polls. There's very little to bring people to the polls except the transportation issue, if they feel strongly about that one way or the other."

Mike Kelly, above, a building manager at George Mason University in Fairfax, shows deterioration of the insulation along cooling pipes in the 30-year-old Thompson Building, below, which would be renovated if bonds are approved.