In the months following the volleyball scandal, the community seemed to have lost trust in the school district. For some it was the failure of the school district to recognize the inherent conflict of interest, for some it was the amount of money spent to investigate the original complaint, and for many it was the way some of the board chose to handle the public’s concerns – at one point telling the public it was time to “move on” and, in effect, get over it.
It was Alan Fernandes, the board member who directly replaced Nancy Peterson, who made a critical point during the candidates’ forum in September of last year, stating that rebuilding trust is critical because, without trust, the community is not going to continue to support parcel tax expenditures that enable the school district to fiscally stay afloat.
He later told the Vanguard, “The recent situation surrounding Nancy Peterson’s resignation brought to focus the issue of trust and conflicts of interest for school board trustees. Specifically, the Peterson situation highlighted the fact that a school board member must represent the community at-large. Further, it brought to the community’s attention that district policies must be drafted for the community at-large and implemented in a consistent manner so as to not favor a school board member or active volunteer anymore than a hard working guardian.”
“Last night’s forum reiterated that the misuse of the public’s trust is still on the conscience of the community,” he stated. “There were questions about trust and conflicts of interest. One member of the community asked each candidate to explain what special interests each candidate represents. Although I do not represent any one particular special interest and stated that at the forum, I do have children in our schools and want them to succeed, but not at the expense of other children in our district.”
Indeed, the comments I have seen in recent weeks indicate that the school district has not done nearly enough to put the Nancy Peterson incident behind them. And some comments suggest that the current debate over GATE/AIM is bleeding onto past doubts.
Yesterday, an anonymous poster said, “It’s increasingly difficult to find ways to go forward in good faith with this administration and this Board, and I am a longtime supporter of DJUSD and prior parcel taxes. I hear serious doubts expressed by many community members about supporting another parcel tax given the actions of this Board over the past year since they were elected.”
The poster continues, “It is difficult to trust them with more money when it’s been spent on strategic planning that is all but ignored a year later as well as costly and wasteful investigations, and to what purpose? Are we getting our money’s worth? Right now, I’d have to say we are not.”
The problem that the school board faces going forward is, how deep does this sentiment go? It is somewhat easy to dismiss the comment if you believe it is made by a small but vocal section of the population.
But let us bear in mind that, in past analyses, it doesn’t take a huge tidal wave in most parcel tax elections to change the outcome. For example, Measure E passed in November 2012 with a seemingly robust 69 percent.
In terms of total support, the overwhelming number of voters showed support for the school district. But in terms of the two-thirds threshold, if just 760 voters went from the yes to the no column, the measure would have lost.
It doesn’t take a huge stretch. Measure A in May 2011 passed with 67.2 percent of the vote. The election, marred by accusations against the district on exemptions and other issues, came down to 116 votes.
Last week, we crunched the numbers on the parcel taxes, which combined generate about $9.5 million annually for the school district and both are set to expire in June 2017. Even with the increase of money, the school district, which is finally operating in the black, and even with the LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula) increases for last year, this year and the projected ones the next two years, it is hard to see the district being able to shed much if any of its parcel tax revenue.
No one wants to talk about this – it is in a way the third rail of Davis politics, even more than housing – but the school district is absolutely reliant on the parcel tax to maintain its high level of educational standard.
The question right now is unanswerable – I am not going to sit here and argue that the parcel tax is in trouble because of voter disillusion and distrust of the handling of Nancy Peterson, coupled with anger that some parents have over GATE/AIM.
The current AIM proposal, with a phased-in change over three years, may be able to pass muster. It may even be able to get to a 5-0 vote, depending on a number of factors.
But in a way, that will solve little. As the poster noted, “The current proposal to phase in changes over 3 years seems to be a tactic to decrease the number of vocally unhappy parents of this year’s third-graders and shift the burden to those a few years younger whose parents are not yet paying attention to these issues.”
In effect, this compromise will allow us to continue for the next year with the program largely the same as it is – with only minor tweaks on the edges. The real changes will come down the line. That could be an advantage in trying to push through school board elections and the parcel tax, or it could leave open gaping wounds that are not filled.
Part of the problem that the district still faces both on AIM as well as Differentiated Instruction is that there is no articulable “educational benefit” for the change. Instead, this looks like philosophy and perhaps politics rolled into one.
District supporters will undoubtedly argue that GATE parents would be cutting off their noses to spite their faces if they allow their anger over the GATE program to determine their decisions on the parcel tax.
While that’s certainly a valid perspective, it may underestimate the driving force of anger in determining the willingness of the voters to approve a new parcel tax.
And remember, it’s not a huge number here. In the last election, a huge presidential turnout, all it would have taken was 3.7 percent of voters who supported the parcel tax to change their mind.
Given all that’s happened in the last two years, it’s hard to imagine that at least twice that number aren’t at least re-thinking their vote for next time. Given the stakes of the parcel tax, I think instead of trying to shame people into submission on the parcel tax vote, the district needs to look deeply into voter angst and mistrust and determine whether there is a real problem – and, if so, how to remedy it.
—David M. Greenwald reporting