Monday Morning Thoughts: Did the School Board Shoot Too Low?

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There was an interesting point raised last week by Ron Glick, and captured by Nicholas von Wettberg in his article yesterday in the Vanguard, questioning the time of discussion on the amount of the parcel tax.

“You polled it,” Ron Glick said, as quoted by Mr. von Wettberg.  He made reference to a pair of telephone surveys conducted on the interest level of Davis voters in April and May. “And I was watching last night and there was all this discussion about people thinking they know that the community will step up. Well, if you know that, why bother hiring the poll? Why take the poll? So you took the poll and the poll came back that said ‘this is the optimum amount,’ and rightfully you settled on it.”

As an advocate for evidence-based decision-making, I strongly agree with the use of polling to assist in making public policy decisions.  The board is expending time and money to put a matter on the ballot that will fund school programs for the next eight years.  It would be irresponsible not to poll the voters.

However, where I disagree with Mr. Glick is that the polling told us to go with a specific amount.  What the polling showed us is that we had strong support to pass a parcel tax at $620, and some support to perhaps pass it as high as $750, while it fell short at $960 with only about 61 percent support.

But, does that mean we shouldn’t put a $960 parcel tax on the ballot?  And, if we do, does that mean we shouldn’t bother to poll?

I think we are in a sense starting with the wrong question here.  The starting question should be: how much money do we need to make our schools great?  It should not be, what is the most amount we can reasonably propose that will get the support of two-thirds of the voters? – although, I grant, that’s an important question.

When I first saw that we got 61 percent support at $960, I felt it was a no-brainer to go up to $750 and I thought we should at least consider going to $960.  Put $50,000 to $100,000 into a campaign with a professional consultant and an active precinct captain system, and I still believe that this community will step up and support education.

However, reading the polling more closely, I can see why our leaders might be a bit more cautious.  While there is support for the parcel tax – much of that support is from non-homeowners, parents of school-aged children, and infrequent voters.  Now, in November, when we will probably get an 80 percent turnout, that might not be a big hurdle, but I can see hesitation.

On the other hand, you might view this as the key moment when we can get the infrequent voters to the polls to take advantage of it.

Anecdotally, I am hearing of cracks forming in support.  One observer told me that they are talking to neighbors who are more hesitant than before, particularly at $620, which is the highest single ask by the school district by far.  Others fear that, while the voters were willing to go up to $800 in November of 2012, the reality is that the single-tax number might be a deterrent.

Four of the five school board members with whom I met in the last month all share my concerns and also my vision for the future.  They differ on how to get there.  That’s fine, I get that.

My concern going forward is this: we are an average funding district.  I think we have sat back on our educational laurels for several years now.  Our schools are good, primarily because the students that are going through them are the children of college professors and college graduates.

We are on the short-end of the stick in terms of funding from the state.  We get less in ADA (average daily attendance) money than the average district and we get less in LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula) money than the average district.  All our $620 parcel tax will do is keep us at average.

Do we want to be average?  Or do we want to be great?  I’m not a believer that having more money automatically translates into success.  But I am a believer that we need more money to have that kind of success.

I was gratified to learn that several of the school board members share in the need to be more aspirational.  But the timing was not nearly as good as it could have been.

At the beginning of the year, Winfred Roberson announced he was leaving the district for another district.  Since the beginning of the year, essentially, the district has been operating in a leadership vacuum.  They have hired John Bowes to be the new superintendent, and the board members I met with sing his praises and believe he can formulate the vision to move us forward.

For me, we need to lay out what that vision looks like, what programs we need, and how much it will cost to do that.  Madhavi Sunder pointed out that we need not just general fund money but we need capital money that we can use to upgrade our facilities.

Perhaps what we need is a general obligation bond to upgrade those facilities – something that we haven’t had in almost 20 years.  Perhaps what we need is the time to formulate the vision that can be presented to the voters and we come back in 2018 with another parcel tax to take us to the next level.

I also greatly support the idea of a rainy day fund – the ability for us to manage the booms and busts of this state at the local level.  So every time funding falls we don’t have to pinkslip our teachers and go to the voters.

I also believe it is time to revamp our foundations and look to an alternative means for private funding.  We have the opportunity for public-private partnerships with tech companies and the university – that we are not seizing upon.

The Davis Schools Foundation recently raised about $178 thousand in one-time money for our schools, but I can’t help thinking that we have better ways to utilize that time and energy.  For one thing, if we took that money and put it into a campaign, we could turn that $178 thousand into ongoing funding for school programs, rather than a one-time bandaid.

For another, we seem to be leaving a lot on the table, in terms of possibilities to better utilize our public-private partnerships.

The bottom line is this – we need to pass our parcel tax as a way to continue our current level of school funding, but we cannot stop there.  We need to figure out ways to make our schools great, and I believe that requires a lot more resources than what we have right now.

—David M Greenwald reporting

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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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24 thoughts on “Monday Morning Thoughts: Did the School Board Shoot Too Low?”

  1. hpierce

    As they say, “the die is cast”… the November vote will be on what the Board approved… truly sounds, based on your previous thoughts/recommendations, that you actually took a personal stand on, like ‘Monday morning quarterbacking’

    GO Bond for facilities?  When there are two (at least) DJUSD CFD bonds (infrastructure) in place and which I’ve been paying for for years, and will be for years more (not one of which facilities my children benefited from)?  When the school district sold the Grande site, to a developer, after strong-arming the City to waive staff costs to process the entitlements, for facilities?  When DJUSD seeks to sell the Nugget Fields site to the highest bidder (developers) for facilities [and will probably ask/demand that the City absorb all/most costs of staff time for entitlements, as they did on Grande]?  When the DJUSD has squandered facilities funds into cost over-runs going back to the original construction of Emerson?

    That will be a VERY hard sell for me…

    But if you are listened to, and the idea gains ‘traction’, kiss any new City assessment, any renewal of any City levies that are subject to vote, goodbye… perhaps that is your true motivation…

    Seems that you meet two (minimum) of the three criteria for the ‘target voter’… “non-homeowners, parents of school-aged children, and infrequent voters”.

     

  2. quielo

    Raising the parcel tax while increasing exemptions is the wrong way to go. Ageist assumptions that people over 65 don’t have money, while of course we all pay for their healthcare, is wrong.

    1. WesC

      The senior exemption is not a new exemption. It is in place for measures C & E.  Allowing a group that regularly votes in high percentages to opt out of a tax goes a long way in convincing them to vote for that tax.

        1. hpierce

          Actually, you may be on to something… if folk could get an exemption for DONATIONS, for Fed/State tax purposes, and you made a pitch that “it’s for the kids”, perhaps folk could be persuaded to donate $1,000 -$10,000 to the schools… perhaps we should have tried that first… if 67% of folk are willing to donate $620 (vote criteria), and even up it to $930, (the other 1/3 wouldn’t have to pay), the District would be “made whole”…

          Worth a try…

          BTW, there is also the apartment dweller ‘exemption’… where, if you are in a 100 unit apartment, you can “pledge” $6.20 and get the SF HO’s/tenants to pay $620… you get the same ‘benefit’, but leverage your pledge 100 to 1… pretty good deal…
           

        2. wdf1

          hpierce:  Actually, you may be on to something… if folk could get an exemption for DONATIONS, for Fed/State tax purposes, and you made a pitch that “it’s for the kids”, perhaps folk could be persuaded to donate $1,000 -$10,000 to the schools… perhaps we should have tried that first… if 67% of folk are willing to donate $620 (vote criteria), and even up it to $930, (the other 1/3 wouldn’t have to pay), the District would be “made whole”…

          Worth a try…

          We did that with the DSF fundraising in 2008.  Some community members go for that, but it does not create a stable funding stream that is enough, and is reliable.  The district can only budget on what is committed and in hand.  Also, PTA’s and school booster organizations are already doing a lot of fundraising to cover things that public schools covered at one time.  There is a limit to what can be covered by volunteer fundraising, and it is nowhere near what can be had from school parcel taxes.

          Many other community members didn’t go for volunteer donations, because of the perception that not everyone is contributing their fair share, and yet are taking advantage of the schools for their own kids, or for the value of their property.

          Public schools are a public good/service, as are roads, sewers, water, fire/police protection.  Everyone benefits to some degree, even if you don’t have kids in the schools.  Other public services besides schools have more true local control as to funding policies.  Funding of public schools is more limited — the state mostly controls the funding, and local funding options are more limited.  (LCFF — Local Control Funding Formula has a lot of state strings attached to how the money can be spent)   It didn’t used to be that way; local communities used to take most of the responsibility for funding their local schools.

          One of the issues that motivated the passage of Prop. 13 was that senior (65+) homeowners, who were often on a more limited retirement income and who had often paid off their homes, were paying new taxes at levels they couldn’t afford and sometimes were selling their homes because of it.  I think that is the origin and one rationale behind the senior exemption on parcel taxes.

          Funding of public schools in California is far from perfect, but given that there is a need for good public schools, it is better than a number of alternatives.

        3. quielo

          wdf1 “(LCFF — Local Control Funding Formula has a lot of state strings attached to how the money can be spent)” That has not proven to be the case. When the LCFF was being debated the unions were quite upfront about their desire to have money passed out with no strings nd district administrations supported them. Fast forward to today and the state’s largest recipient of LCFF cash is being sued by a number of groups for spending less than 20% of the money they received on student services. Most of the cash went to unions and administrators and the rest went to replace special Ed money they had taken and given to unions and administrators. They have given all unions a big raise and hired numerous administrators despite the fact their enrollment is declining each year. Google “LAUSD LCFF lawsuit” for more. The voluntary contribution idea is entirely possible. The best group I have seen at this is http://mbef.org/. While MB is more affluent than Davis it is only half as large and a house in MBUSD will carry at least a 50% premium compared to a house across the street. MBEF works through many non-parent groups, particularly real estate. The messge of the MBEF is clear, children in MB schools will receive an education equivalent to a good private school and the value of your house is dependent on maintaining prestigious schools. All MB schools are ranked 10 on great schools. If one were to fall to 9 it would be a major scandal. The material is presented in a way that kids, al least my kids, don’t  feel pushed and look forward to school.

          I would look to MB for leadership here.

           

           

        4. wdf1

          quielo:  While MB is more affluent than Davis it is only half as large and a house in MBUSD will carry at least a 50% premium compared to a house across the street. MBEF works through many non-parent groups, particularly real estate. The messge of the MBEF is clear, children in MB schools will receive an education equivalent to a good private school and the value of your house is dependent on maintaining prestigious schools. All MB schools are ranked 10 on great schools. If one were to fall to 9 it would be a major scandal. The material is presented in a way that kids, al least my kids, don’t  feel pushed and look forward to school.

          Manhattan Beach has a median home price of more than $1 million, and a median household income of $142K. (source)  By contrast Davis median home price with the same source lists at $533K and a median income of $57K.  I will grant that I think that income figure is skewed low for Davis on account of resident student population.  I don’t think median household income (excluding students) is much above $70K.  Median income level makes a huge difference in the ability of the MB Ed Foundation to fundraise, relative to the Davis Schools Foundation.  If you are convinced that DSF could fundraise annually at a higher level ($1.8 million was their highest level in 2008), I suggest you talk to their board of directors.

          If you want to make a more direct comparison of school districts, MB has 6,800 students, DJUSD has 8,626 students.

          MB schools are ranked high based on standardized test scores.  I used to think of standardized test scores as something solid on which to base the quality of education, as you seem to think.  I no longer think much of standardized test scores, even when they favor Davis (here, for instance, in which Davis HS is the highest ranking non-magnet comprehensive high school in northern California).  It is a very narrow range of measures and curricular areas.

          Standardized test scores have a high correlation to income level (for example).  Manhattan Beach USD shows about 2% of its students on free/reduced lunch; Davis JUSD is 27%.  (You definitely won’t fundraise at as efficient a rate per family with that % of lower income students.)  Davis JUSD also has a higher percentage of ELL students (10.5% vs. 1%).

          In this comment, you seem to acknowledge this correlation and seem to hope that lower income families move away from Davis so that we won’t have to worry about the achievement gap.  I don’t think that will happen.  Lower income families can afford to live in Davis by living in apartments that might normally be attractive to UCD students.  Manhattan Beach doesn’t appear to accommodate that demographic.

        5. quielo

          wdf1: ” seem to hope that lower income families move away from Davis” not sure “hope” is the operative word but certainly the town seems to be moving in that diection. In my short time here I have met many people who “could” afford to live in Davis but choose to live in Woodland as they can get a bigger/newer house on a bigger lot for the same money. Davis is not that unaffordable in that the price of entry is in the $200’s for a condo though you can get a house for the same money in Dixon/Woodland/Winters. This promotes a certain degree of self-selection based on what Davis offers and whether is is worth the trade-off of an old 1400″ house versus a new 2200″ house for the same money. 

          In my personal opinion people who are attracted by good schools are more desirable neighbors than those that are attracted by RV storage areas but that’s  just me.

          There are notable demographic differences though the disposable income delta may not be as large as the total income disparity.

          “Davis JUSD also has a higher percentage of ELL students (10.5% vs. 1%).”  In many districts ELL is a marker for “unacculturated immigrants of low educational background” while in Davis it may mean highly educated grad students from other countries. While there is still a challenge with this population it is not as negative a prognostic indicator.

           

          “Lower income families can afford to live in Davis by living in apartments that might normally be attractive to UCD students.  Manhattan Beach doesn’t appear to accommodate that demographic” The most common way to resolve this problem is through tracking. The board seems philosophically opposed to offering accelerated content to those who would enjoy that, regardless of background. What I hear from the Board is “best education for all students” but what his seems to actually mean is “sacrifice the interest of the most interested/capable students in favor the interests of less interested/capable students”. 

           

        6. Misanthrop

          Now we are comparing Davis to Manhattan Beach? Why would we do that? We are not near a beach or ocean. Any limitation on growth here is self inflicted. I know lots of people who live in nearby communities and value education. Many of them have their kids at St. James. It seems your self selection hypothesis suffers from your own selection criteria.

        7. wdf1

          quielo:   In many districts ELL is a marker for “unacculturated immigrants of low educational background” while in Davis it may mean highly educated grad students from other countries. While there is still a challenge with this population it is not as negative a prognostic indicator.

          It means that such students will likely not perform as well on the English language portion of standardized tests, regardless of parent education level.  If parents have college education, then one can presume that their kids may have a chance to achieve acceptable English proficiency faster than kids whose parents don’t have college education.

          I take your point, but use it to remind you of the limitations of using standardized test scores.  You highlighted how Manhattan Beach schools are so highly rated, seemingly in comparison to Davis schools.

          quielo:  The most common way to resolve this problem is through tracking. The board seems philosophically opposed to offering accelerated content to those who would enjoy that, regardless of background. 

          One problem with tracking is that students over time mostly interact with other students like themselves.  While there is appeal to that, I think it becomes a social flaw over time.  Faculty and other highly educated adults lose the ability to relate to other adults who aren’t as highly educated, because they have never interacted with someone who was performing at a lower academic level, or didn’t appreciate academic pursuits in the same way.

          With the emphasis on standardized test scores that you seem to have, the measure of success is yielding the highest possible standardized test scores.  Anything else is irrelevant.  There is no measure of how well one relates to other people, especially if they’re unlike you.  As a graduate student, I saw some atrocious deficiencies social skills displayed by faculty.  Or ability to present one’s self to a public audience.  I have been to science meetings where professors and researchers were awful public speakers — maybe their research was pretty good, but it was hard to discern.  These are some examples of results you can get when you focus heavily on tracking by curricular mastery and ignore other aspects of human development.

        8. quielo

          Wdf1, “With the emphasis on standardized test scores that you seem to have, the measure of success is yielding the highest possible standardized test scores.”

          I don’t believe test scores are the goal however it’s difficult for me to envision a successful program that would have bad test scores. My priorities in education are

          1 Safety

          2 Promote a desire to learn

          3 learn logical and critical thinking

          4 understand how to solve a problem

          Everything else is secondary including some of the board’s priorities like gardening.

          I admire MB as they not only have great test scores but the students like going there as they always have some engaging material. The test scores were never a focus but were a result of continuous encouragement of students interests. MB is also relentless in teacher training and evaluation. As a prestige district they had a great many candidates for open positions yet at least 25% were let go after their first year.  Two of the teachers I am familiar with at DJUSD are good and one needs work.

           

          The other aspect of MBUSD that I admire is the emphasis that schools drive community. MB and Davis are similar in the focus on children and the inclusiveness of events of children. I do not see the same message that great schools are foundational for a community and of course real estate values. This may be a function of my recent arrival.

           

           

        9. wdf1

          quielo:  I don’t believe test scores are the goal however it’s difficult for me to envision a successful program that would have bad test scores.

          Because we live in a world of “accountability” and because standardized test scores have been the go to statistic for accountability, what other measures would you present if test scores aren’t the main goal?

          quielo:  Everything else is secondary including some of the board’s priorities like gardening.

          A diversity of curricular opportunities and developmental experiences serve the broadest foundational and developmental interests of the students.  The “everything else is secondary” covers a broad spectrum of essential educational experiences for many students who would find school much less interesting without them.

          For some, and perhaps you, working through concepts in a classroom or a textbook maybe enough.  For many individuals, seeing something more tangible and in the field makes concepts clearer.  You may not see much value to gardening, but for many, that is a tool for hands on understanding of plant growth and development in biology, understanding soil science and development, ecology, agriculture, nutrition, seasonal and climate effects, as well as a number of other non-cognitive experiences.

        1. hpierce

          Well, if we do that (and I’d support it, IF it is an HONEST ‘means testing’, not subject to “cheating”), let’s also change the law that doesn’t let parcel taxes be figured based on dwelling units, (dwelling units are closer to demand for school services than ‘parcels’).  And, let’s change the law that lets commercial properties keep their Prop 13 rates by changing ownership in increments smaller than 25% per transaction…

  3. Misanthrop

    The trend on asking the voters for money is almost always down from early polling to election day. They polled it once and didn’t like the number so they polled it again and a higher amount still came back a loser. Then you had two trustees, who weren’t on the subcommittee doing the heavy lifting, push for a higher amount. They were wrong, luckily the majority was right and set it at a level that polled well. Maybe Davis can buck the trend but generally its not your friend in these matters. Your blue sky analysis is a recipe for losing and sending out lots of pink slips to people who can easily find work elsewhere while we try to save the school budget with a second election. Its easy for you to argue for a higher number you aren’t the one who has to weigh all the variables and actually make the decision.

  4. nameless

    “...he starting question should be: how much money do we NEED to make our schools great?

    There is a big difference between need and want. IMO a science camp which was to be funded by a $960 parcel tax is a nice to have but NOT A NEED.  (Others may disagree.)

    hpierce: “GO Bond for facilities?  When there are two (at least) DJUSD CFD bonds (infrastructure) in place and which I’ve been paying for for years, and will be for years more (not one of which facilities my children benefited from)?  When the school district sold the Grande site, to a developer, after strong-arming the City to waive staff costs to process the entitlements, for facilities?  When DJUSD seeks to sell the Nugget Fields site to the highest bidder (developers) for facilities [and will probably ask/demand that the City absorb all/most costs of staff time for entitlements, as they did on Grande]?  When the DJUSD has squandered facilities funds into cost over-runs going back to the original construction of Emerson?
    That will be a VERY hard sell for me…

    But if you are listened to, and the idea gains ‘traction’, kiss any new City assessment, any renewal of any City levies that are subject to vote, goodbye… perhaps that is your true motivation…”

    All excellent points.  I would add to this laundry list the fact that the School Board and DJUSD have squandered money on things like Volleyballgate, let the MPR fall to rack and ruin instead of doing proper maintenance requiring a complete teardown and rebuild, and certainly did not handle the GATE/AIM issue in a professional manner.  Then of course there was the Total School Solutions scandal as well as the King High School construction mess… and the list goes on.

    wdf1: “We did that with the DSF fundraising in 2008.  Some community members go for that, but it does not create a stable funding stream that is enough, and is reliable.  The district can only budget on what is committed and in hand.  Also, PTA’s and school booster organizations are already doing a lot of fundraising to cover things that public schools covered at one time.  There is a limit to what can be covered by volunteer fundraising, and it is nowhere near what can be had from school parcel taxes.

    Many other community members didn’t go for volunteer donations, because of the perception that not everyone is contributing their fair share, and yet are taking advantage of the schools for their own kids, or for the value of their property.

    Public schools are a public good/service, as are roads, sewers, water, fire/police protection.  Everyone benefits to some degree, even if you don’t have kids in the schools.  Other public services besides schools have more true local control as to funding policies.  Funding of public schools is more limited — the state mostly controls the funding, and local funding options are more limited.  (LCFF — Local Control Funding Formula has a lot of state strings attached to how the money can be spent)   It didn’t used to be that way; local communities used to take most of the responsibility for funding their local schools.

    I know this is going to shock the heck out of you wdf1, but I completely agree that the schools cannot count on donations as a way to continue funding our schools, for all the reasons you have mentioned.  Continuing parcel taxes is the most reasonable approach.  I had no problem funding the stadium via donations by the Blue & White Foundation, because I did not see the stadium as a need, but more of a nice to have.  But when the issue has to do with teacher layoffs, music and art programs (all my children were band students), I do believe these should be funded from a source that is reliable and ongoing.  The fact of the matter is that everyone benefits from good schools, even those folks without children.

    What is particularly frustrating to me is the way in which the parcel tax is structured.  Not only is there a senior exemption, even if the senior is wealthy, but the parcel tax is the same whether you own a house worth $1,000,000 or $350,000.  The parcel tax is completely unfair in the way it is applied.  Here is an article by columnist Tom Elias that starkly illustrates my point: http://www.thefrontpageonline.com/op-ed/tax-would-be-unfair-for-decades

    Pertinent quotes from the article: “Parcel taxes gradually have become the rage in California over the last 40 years. This happened largely because of the 1971 Serrano v. Priest decision of the California Supreme Court, which sees more than half of most new property tax assessments by school districts sent to Sacramento for dispersion among the poorest districts in the state. Parcel taxes are the only kind whose take stays completely at home, to be used for local purposes where it is raised…”

    “That’s right, the owner of a one-room shack deep in the Hamilton Range of Alameda and Santa Clara counties would pay the same $12 assessed against the billion-dollar complexes of companies like Google and Apple Computer in the heart of Silicon Valley.”

    Even backers of many parcel tax plans often admit the levy is inherently unfair, taxing the poor the same amount as wealthy corporations. That is one reason some parcel taxes exempt property owned by senior citizens.” 
     

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