Analysis: School District Should Be Wary of Voter Angst

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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

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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26 Comments

  1. Anon

    Yes, the school board should vote “no” on its current proposed plan, to merely delay the shrinking of AIM by half over three years while “data” is collected (gag me with a spoon!), as the sham that it is.  The DJUSD should merely correct the testing process, which was the basic complaint.  If the DJUSD wants to shrink the AIM program, then give justifiable reasons why, otherwise keep AIM the same because it is shown to be a successful program.

  2. Chuck Rairdan

    David, thanks so much for covering this topic. More and more voters in Davis are becoming disenchanted with this board and administration, not just the AIM program supporters. What’s being done affects Davis as a whole and the group pushing this agenda seems oblivious to just how destructive their actions and approach are. It is like a massive wave building off the coast and when it crashes on the shore, they will all be laying around dazed and wondering what happened. And will they take personal responsibility? No, they’ll just slink away in dismay at why everyone else didn’t get their “vision”.

    1. hpierce

      Well, from the tone, I guess you are in the “them or us” mode.  I reject that.  There are problems with the way the program has been administered.  Don Shor admits that, to an extent.  We need to ‘problem-solve’ not polarize.  ‘Problem-solving’ used to be a criteria for G&T and or GATE/AIM identifcation.

      1. DavisAnon

        hpierce, without presuming to answer for Chuck, I have been completely unsuccessful in problem-solving with this Board and administration thus far. They refuse to have a discussion of the issues. They refuse to answer questions and deflect them or give vague or inaccurate answers. They have not been honest with me in their viewpoints, intention or agenda. When meeting with the public, they have been for the most part entirely uninterested in listening and have just focused on informing us of the proposal without two-way feedback that allows for a productive discussion and compromise, let alone consensus.

        Please tell me how to ‘problem-solve’ under these conditions and I will gladly attempt it. I don’t disagree with making changes, but let’s at least try to make them considered ones that would be expected to improve education for students.

        Davis Progressive’s comment below voices many of my sentiments very well.

    2. ryankelly

      So Chuck – Are you in support of the community voting “No” on the renewing the upcoming school bonds?

      No one I know personally is voicing disenchantment with this Board and administration, so I don’t know who you are talking to.  However, I do know people who would happily vote against a renewal of the school bond if there is any inkling that the money is not appreciated by parents with school age children in Davis.  So if you are interested in maintaining support from the community, I would tone it down on your accusations improprieties by the elected Board.   Will you take responsibility if the parcel taxes fail?  Will you see that you played a part in spreading discontent?  No, you’ll blame the Board, correct?

      1. hpierce

        Not meaning to be picayune (supposedly a cool small city in Mississippi), but don’t think DJUSD is looking for a bond measure/renewal (the latter generally doesn’t exist), but I’m assuming you meant ‘parcel taxes’, which are “real time” and don’t include “bonds”.

      2. Chuck Rairdan

        No, ryankelly, I absolutely would not support defeat of the upcoming school parcel tax renewal. No one would benefit from that, especially the students in DJUSD. That being said, school boards do not operate in a vacuum and should be held to high standards in their decision making. Most citizens expect elected boards to represent the whole community in a fair and balanced manner and would gladly go about their busy lives secure in that knowledge. So, if by raising the prospect that growing disenchantment could result in such a disastrous outcome is seen by some as irresponsible, perhaps remembering how this ball got rolling and continues to do so is a better place to start. The violation of the above implied trust is a big part of what gets so many upset at this unfolding situation, regardless of where they stand on the AIM program. Process matters and, under the circumstances, just rolling over and staying quiet about a distinct adverse possibility would be irresponsible imo.

  3. Napoleon Pig IV

    Anon and Chuck Rairdan said it well!

    I used to mindlessly vote in favor of all school taxes because I strongly support the philosophy behind public education and assumed that such taxes were necessary to maintain and improve quality. However, over the last couple of years, I’ve become much more aware of the darker reality and will be watching much more closely before voting yes or no. But, vote I will. I cannot imagine that how the board handles the AIM program will not be a major factor in my own vote and in that of many, many others.

  4. Davis Progressive

    add me to the growing chorus of folks who never thought they would consider voting against a parcel tax but is actually considering it.

    school board members if you are reading:

    1. don’t believe you have done enough to rectify the volleyball gate

    2. don’t believe you have done anything to address the achievement gap

    3.  focused on the polarizing gate issue and are willing to support major changes with no research backing it and without being able to answer the simplest question: who benefits from the change

    4.  i just don’t see very good leadership from the top on down

  5. wdf1

    Davis Enterprise, 11/4/15, editorial board: Our view: We support a plan for all students

    We endorse these recommendations, and commend Superintendent Winfred Roberson and his administrative team for devising a reasonable path forward, preserving the best of the self-contained AIM classroom program while addressing the needs of all Davis students.

    And we would be remiss in not acknowledging the courage and leadership of the Davis Board of Education, whose members are finally tackling a problem that has been years — really, decades — in the making.

    1. Napoleon Pig IV

      What a lame editorial, filled with the usual platitudes and misrepresentations of fact. I would attribute it to Barbara Archer’s propaganda skills, but even she should be able to write a more persuasive piece than this, so it must be the “brain”child of Susan Lovenburg spoon fed to Debbie Davis for an enhanced patina of credibility.

      Well, I can reach two conclusions from this issue of the local fish wrap: 1) If I hadn’t already cancelled my subscription to the Enterprise, I would certainly do so now, and 2) If this mindless pap ends up reflected in action taken by DJUSD and its board, then I’ll definitely be voting against any new or renewing parcel taxes.

    2. Don Shor

      Still curious about how you, wdf, feel about the recommendations. As to the editorial:

      many of whom are tested and re-tested privately so they’ll make the cut.

      Um, not any more.

      But school district administrators and trustees are trying to get their arms around this program and pull it back to a manageable size, serving the core students for whom AIM was originally intended.

      Not really. Reduce it, yes. Again the fixation on the numbers.

      preserving the best of the self-contained AIM classroom program while addressing the needs of all Davis students.

      Huh? It doesn’t change anything about GATE except the number of students that will be in the program. How does this address the needs of “all” Davis students? How does it address the needs of the students who would have formerly been in GATE, but now won’t?

      A KEY PIECE of the puzzle is the new emphasis on differentiated instruction.

      This is incredibly frustrating. They aren’t changing anything for gifted-identified students with regard to differentiated instruction.

      The proposed differentiation specialist will support AIM teachers in their challenging roles as well as coach teachers in all classrooms.

      How many hours a week is this individual going to be working?

      the specialist will provide support and professional growth for all teachers

      Is that special teacher training going to be mandatory, compensated, and scheduled?

      1. Don Shor

        These recommendations are almost certain to pass, either 3:2 or 4:1. And, of course, this will be a big issue in the next campaign. So in a couple of years, assuming it isn’t overturned, parents whose kids test at 96 – 97% and aren’t doing real well in school would probably do well to look into private school options, or get in line early for split-site placement at DSIS. Otherwise they’ll fall through the cracks unless they get outstanding teachers. A part-time differentiation specialist in a district that considers differentiation to be “a philosophy, not a program” isn’t going to be able to provide what they need. And any assertion that this is best for “all” the students is disingenuous.

        1. Napoleon Pig IV

          Very important observations, Don.

          As the schools go, so goes the community. Few may see the cause and effect relationships when they study the demise of Davis a decade hence, but if you are right about the 3:2 or 4:1 vote, then that evening of infamy will be a catalyst for a downward spiral in real estate values and the loss of the cultural attractiveness of Davis. It will be just another mediocre freeway pull-off with a college campus midway between San Francisco and Sacramento.

      2. wdf1

        Don Shor:  Still curious about how you, wdf, feel about the recommendations.

        As my past comment postings indicate, I am averse to the use of standardized tests as heavily as an arbiter of educational achievement and decisions.  It seems that a heavier reliance on standardized tests for AIM/GATE identification came about in part to bring objectivity to the process and avoid certain kinds of bias.  But it seems to miss that there are identified non-cognitive traits that are claimed to be served by AIM/GATE.

        Proponents often tout how their kids felt accepted and embraced by the program, that prior to being in AIM/GATE their child may have felt ostracized, or bullied or unable to connect with others.  Deborah Nichols Poulos, for example, uses the “odd duck” metaphor in one of her advocacy pieces in promoting the value of the program.  If that is the kind of student that the AIM/GATE program is  supposed to serve, then those social traits and phenomena are not being used to identify those students.  In spite of a potentially flawed identification process, many parents seem to be happy that the AIM/GATE program meets those needs.  On the other hand, there are many parents who have participated in AIM/GATE and feel like the program is not meeting the needs as promised by advocates like Nichols Poulos, especially in later grades, when social development becomes more critical.  MrsW seems to express that position.

        I think the HOPE scale might begin to offer better identification means.  I am for trying it out.  I’m not crazy about recommendations 1, 2, and 4, because it seems to be a continuation of heavy reliance on standardized test scores to make the decision.  I don’t think this discussion is over.

        I think there will probably continue to be under-representation of Hispanic/Latino students, especially those who come from families with lower levels of education.  I don’t see an indication that this will change.  I think there is a strong tendency for those with higher levels of education (including district staff) to patronize those with lower levels of education.  So a student from a Spanish speaking family without college education, who might show certain traits associated with AIM/GATE students, is probably not going to be identified, and the parents are not knowledgeable enough to prepare their kids or to advocate for them.

        I think my perspective is probably too “fringe” at the moment to expect the district or the community to respond.  But I think the conversation will eventually come this way.  I am patient.

        1. MrsW

          “But it seems to miss that there are identified non-cognitive traits that are claimed to be served by AIM/GATE.”

          “On the other hand, there are many parents who have participated in AIM/GATE and feel like the program is not meeting the needs as promised by advocates like Nichols Poulos, especially in later grades, when social development becomes more critical.  MrsW seems to express that position.”

          Thank you.  I feel heard today 🙂

  6. David Greenwald

    This was emailed to me anonymously:

    Will Davis cut off its nose to spite its face. I hope not but if the Davis Vanguard is an indication of community sentiment, something I’m not sure of, DJUSD may be in trouble.

    The irony is the heavy handed board majority’s attitude  has poisoned the wellspring of goodwill the people of Davis have for the local public schools, and for what? As we come to the end of this process, a process that has been top down from start to finish, the community remains deadlocked on AIM. Instead of trying to reach consensus either through the traditional process of engaging with the school community or by having a subcommittee of board members with opposing views seek consensus this board has directed administration to implement the vision of the board majority. The administration has done as directed spending the better part of the year trying to achieve the Trustees directive while also trying to mollify the outraged and roiled members of the community who have not sat idly by as the board majority rolled them over.

    At the end of the day what has been achieved at great expense politically? Not much. There has been no global solution to the problem of admittance to the gate program. The board may move the testing goal posts for admittance to 98 from 96 but they won’t implement it until after there is an election so it may never get implemented. Even if it does, because they failed to achieve consensus and an over arching solution that everyone can live with, this issue will be back again, maybe as soon as a new board is seated in 2017.

    The Trustees are first and foremost the fiduciaries of the district. Their first governing responsibility is to be the guardians of school finances. On the day to day business of running the district they are supposed to take a 30,000 foot view and only step in after the democratic and administrative processes have played out. This board has failed in that regard even now getting into the minutia of pedagogy on differentiation, where they have neither the training nor the expertise to lead. Acting as if they can simply decree differentiation and expect that it will happen evenly in every classroom is pure fantasy. This is only one example of their foolishness as is the hiring of a Differentiation Coordinator. How about you hire a teacher instead so that you have smaller class sizes where differentiation might have a chance of success. The Differentiation Coordinator position is a foolhardy political answer to a mess of the Trustees own making. It is an expensive one as well calling into question their responsibilities as fiduciaries.

    As for the parcel tax I don’t see how the incumbents who vote for these changes can be on the same ballot with both the parcel tax and their own re-election and expect to both win re-election and pass the parcel tax. There is sure to be a protest vote. It may not be big enough to unseat the incumbents but it very likely, because of the high bar of reaching a two thirds majority, could kill the parcel tax renewal, something that will be devastating to the local schools.

    This board has lost me and if they implement the changes to the aim program as currently proposed I will still likely support a parcel tax unless the the incumbents who vote for the changes to the AIM program run for re-election next November. In that case I will not support a parcel tax because I feel they have overstepped their responsibility as Trustees and usurped the normal decision making process of the district. If I cannot trust them  as fiduciaries for serving the best interests of the children of this community I will protest the only way I can by voting to withhold my financial support from the district until more responsible Trustees are in place who understand how they are supposed to govern and the limitations of their authority.

    1. ryankelly

      Pure foolishness.   But many will gladly support him in his protest vote and save themselves a little money.

      What many ignore is that there is significant support for what the District is doing.  If people want to cut Arts, Music, extra periods at Jr Highs, etc. in protest, then I’d say that it would be a mistake to take their lead in other matters.

        1. ryankelly

          The community has been asked to do just that for many years – vote to support a system that they see has many flaws.  This call to punish the Board by voting down the next parcel tax renewal is completely selfish.  It is a vote prompted by revenge.   No other explanation.  You want an evidence of a dark, underbelly of Davis.  Here it is.

      1. Napoleon Pig IV

        I think it is not accurate to say “there is significant support for what the District is doing.” I’d say there is general apathy and ignorance about what the District is doing.

        The important difference is that if there were actual support, the tax would not be in jeopardy. However, a mass of apathetic people can become motivated to rise up in arms, at least for short periods of time, before the apathy inevitably returns. But, that short period of time will be long enough to deprive the schools of needed resources as a direct, and perhaps deserved, consequence of incompetence, mismanagement, and misrepresentation on the part of the administration and most board members.

  7. Tia Will

    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”

    For those who adhere to this position, I would like to know exactly what steps that you believe that the district should take to ” put the Nancy Peterson incident behind them”.

  8. Frankly

    AIM/GATE is simply a scheme of the well-heeled academics to extract better education quality out of the otherwise crappy public school system for their little darlings at the expense of all the other kids that would be much better served by the alternative focus on adequate differentiation.

    There is a small percentage of truly special needs students that justify a self-contained AIM/GATE program… in fact, I think even most if not all of this small group could be adequately served with adequate differentiation.

    It appears to me that the people upset about the District’s direction here are those seeing their somewhat selfish advantage eroding.  They were happy to vote for school funding measures when the advantage existed.  But now, with a greater likelihood that their children will be kept in the standard and normal education program, they no longer feel good about giving the schools more money.

    Which then begs the question… are Davis schools really academic high achieving in consideration of fairness?

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