One thing that has always troubled me with regard to the school district – it has never been the “right time” to ask tough questions. The attitude has always seemed to be that we need the parcel tax, and without the parcel tax we’ll have more problems than we have now.
Last summer of course, as the school district pondered over the size of the parcel tax, there was little appetite on the part of the district, other than Alan Fernandes, to attempt to “go big.” When it was pointed out that the district largely had average funding, the view was that the public wasn’t going to go much higher and that they were already taking a bit of a chance by putting the parcel taxes together and putting a “large number” on the ballot and for six years.
So, now that the parcel tax is safely locked away for the next five years, it is time to ask some tough questions and challenge some assumptions.
The most vexing problem of the complaint about teacher compensation is that it is not a new issue. There has been surface talk about teacher retention, teacher recruiting, teacher compensation – but for the most part those complaints have been pushed down. After all, it was the wrong time to address these things during the Great Recession. Then it was the wrong time to address these things during the continued structural deficit and during the last parcel tax. And now the issue has blown up, or so it would seem.
Superintendent John Bowes acknowledged, “We are aware that there is a wage gap with some of our surrounding communities” but, at the same time, “we are committed to work to find ways be at or near the regional compensation average.”
He continued arguing that all parties need to agree “to the real facts on the ground, and work together to find real solutions.” He said, “In a district that is below the average state-funded level for school districts, we need to come up with creative ways to raise revenues and/or re-prioritize spending.”
As John Bowes explained in a June column, “The Davis Joint Unified School District is extremely fortunate to have benefited from three decades of community-funded parcel taxes that provide a host of value-added programs and services for our students. These additional local revenues have kept our school district programs whole.
“However, after adding in parcel tax revenue, DJUSD is still just an average-funded school district. If there were no local parcel taxes, DJUSD would be funded well below the state average.”
But there is a parcel tax and that means that we are an average-funded school district.
Let us start asking the questions – not that we really expect answers from the district on this or really anything else at this point.
How is it that the district can be about average in terms of funding once we pass a parcel tax, but teachers can be below average in compensation?
That seems like a pretty important question. It leads to questions about whether funds are being mismanaged, administrative compensation is too high, or whether there are too many special programs.
Another important question would be the senior exemption: (1) how much money is the district foregoing through that? (2) would eliminating it put seniors out of their homes? and (3) could the district pass a parcel tax eliminating the senior exemption?
Only a guess, but we may not be talking about enough money to make much of a difference, and yet eliminating the senior exemption could cause severe hardships for those who are on a fixed income.
A key point raised by parents at the meeting is that, while the district has clearly sacrificed compensation with breadth of programs, underpaying Davis teachers is not in the best interest of students.
Teacher quality is an important variable for performance of students and the inability to attract and retain quality teachers is detrimental to education.
The question is how to fix this. And the answer may not be so simple. Superintendent Bowes in his comments made vague reference to needing to “come up with creative ways to raise revenues” or to “re-prioritize spending.” On the other hand, he seemed rather defensive in much of his comments, in arguing that things weren’t as bad as some suggested.
It is a difficult position to be in, and the superintendent only beginning his second school year did not cause this problem, but he along with the school board will be asked to figure out a way to fix it.
It is thus important to understand the nature of the problem – is this a spending problem (we are spending in the wrong areas), a resource problem, or a priority problem? Once we figure out that answer, it will be easier to get to the bottom of the problem and hopefully come up with an answer.
—David M. Greenwald reporting