By Nicholas von Wettberg
Davis voters can expect to see a revised school parcel tax on the November general election ballot.
Residents have relied on supplemental funding to assist their schools for the past 32 years.
An exact amount is still up in the air, but taxpayers are assured of the cost being slightly more than that of Measures C and E, which sunset at the end of the year. These measures provide a total of $531 currently.
At their meeting on Thursday, June 2, the Davis Joint Unified School District (DJUSD) school board was unable to reach a final decision – mostly between the quantities of $620 and $750.
There was some discussion over the sum of $960, which, if approved, would place Davis firmly in the state’s top-10 for district funding.
No matter the final amount, the measure will be paid annually for a total of eight years.
That Thursday evening was also the same night the school board announced the hiring of a new district superintendent, Dr. John Bowes, effective July 1.
The board appeared happy with its appointment in leadership.
While there’s always pressure to make a district-wide move, stakeholders heard that trustees did their due diligence, traveling down to Palos Verdes – where Bowes worked the past few years as associate superintendent – for a lay of the land.
One would think that in addition to credentials (Dr. Bowes has over two decades in the Los Angeles USD), meeting with dozens of people Dr. Bowes had recently worked with – and worked for (namely, the parents) – provides an ample cross-section of feedback, if properly weighted.
As for impact on the Davis community, the school parcel tax is essential to the district, an average-funded one, to make ends meet.
The $620 amount, which was the number recommended to the school board on June 2 by the EMC Research Company, would calculate to roughly 12 percent of the overall budget and provide the district $9.5 million in supplemental funding.
EMC conducted two separate telephone surveys – one in April, the other in May. Each time they interviewed 400 “likely” Davis voters.
The first survey centered on interest in the initial measure at $620 for eight years, which, among other things, calls for maintaining academic, arts and music programs, and retaining “high-quality” teachers. While representing a slight increase from the current funding level, this proposed amount is necessary to maintain the status quo.
Also included in the first survey were questions that gauged the initial level of interest for a potential $750 parcel tax for eight years.
Ruth Bernstein of EMC explained that they had no clean read of approval interest, however, regarding the $750 amount, because the survey results were biased – those surveyed had first been asked about their approval of a $620 tax.
The difference translates to an increase of around $10 per month.
She said that, considering the order of questioning, there was strong support for a measure at $750, with a 64-percent solid yes, but it was still lower than the 71-percent solid yes for the lesser amount.
This happened after the board had just finished hearing a report about the firm’s follow-up, or second survey, on the accelerated $960 measure for eight years.
Trustees requested the second survey, using the higher amount, in some ways to gauge the spending climate of the community because they were intrigued by the April responses in regard to the $750 amount.
While the $960 parcel tax drew in the survey nowhere near the two-thirds support that would be needed for passage, with 55 percent of the voters responding a solid yes to approving the measure, the numbers did indeed show strong support.
DJUSD Associate Superintendent Bruce Colby said there are very few districts receiving $1,000 – maybe some districts in Palo Alto, Santa Clara or Marin, and a few others down in Southern California. Incidentally, Palos Verdes, where the new superintendent comes from, is one.
Caring about the programs is a big factor, according to Ms. Bernstein, but equally important is whether voters would be comfortable with the amount they’re asked to approve.
“So they’re responding to what is in front of them, which is, in this one case, it could be 620 (dollars) it could be 960, it could be some other amount that you decide, but that’s what they basically are reacting to – the programs…do I care about schools, improving academics?” Bernstein said.
She compared the surveying process to doing fundraising calls.
“It’s the same thing, when you actually call someone and say ‘can you give a donation of 100 dollars?’ People are going to say that’s too much, some people will say wait, you should have asked me for more. So, we don’t know what the right exact amount is, we also don’t know what voters are going to feel like in November.”
At that point, trustee Alan Fernandes said he “looks at the decision in two ways.”
The first point he made was that the board had to make a decision on the exact amount. Before Fernandes could finish making the comment, Board President Madhavi Sunder said, “today.”
The second point of Fernandes’ echoed what Bernstein had reasoned, in how important it is to have a good idea of what the measure actually funds.
By the end of the discussion, which included its share of amended motions and the such, trustee Fernandes – whose name is sure to appear on the same ballot as the measure in November – joined forces with the board’s Susan Lovenburg (the other member whose seat is up in November) in asking for a $750 school parcel tax.
Sunder also sided with a $750 measure for eight years.
Interestingly, the rainy-day reserve funds brought up by Fernandes would be enough of a game-changer for him to seriously consider proposing the $960 amount, recognizing that it received 61-percent support in the follow-up survey.
School board member Tom Adams voted to approve a measure that would be for $700 for eight years, while board Vice-President Barbara Archer gave an impassioned plea why fiscal prudence on the part of the district may be the best course of action.
Out of all the options, Archer felt most comfortable sticking with the sure shot approach, at $620.
Next up for discussion and action is drawing up the official 75-word measure that voters will see on the ballot, and unanimously agreeing on an exact amount.
Along with the regular meeting, scheduled for Thursday, June 16, there will be one, maybe two special board meetings held on the topic, at the end of the month.