Lost in the tumult surrounding the presidential election is the fact that, once again, the voters overwhelmingly approved the school parcel tax. While the district and campaign volunteers can now rightly pat themselves on the back, I want to raise a few issues that have troubled me for some time.
I have always been a strong supporter of the parcel tax – we have had good experiences in the school district with our children and, without the parcel tax, this would be a below-average funded school district.
My view from the start was that we actually asked for too little – a view I think that is largely confirmed by the 71 percent for the measure and the lack of organized opposition.
At the same time, my concern is that the district often walks on egg shells any time a problem arises, out of fear that any sort of controversy will cause voters to oppose the parcel tax. In my view, that fear is silly and it actually ends up eroding trust, transparency, and confidence in the district.
Ironically, the fact that Measure H was passed as an eight-year rather than a four-year tax might help in this regard. But I think the whole notion is flawed, if not somewhat insulting to the voters in the district.
The impending parcel tax, interestingly enough, did not prevent the district from making dramatic and controversial changes to the AIM program. While there were some frustrated parents threatening not to support the parcel tax – those threats were not only hollow, but self-defeating.
Board President Madhavi Sunder and incoming board member Bob Poppenga made it clear in their public statements that the district needed the parcel tax. While parents may have been frustrated at a number of things, in the end they knew that they would only be hurting things for their kids if the parcel tax failed.
A secondary strategy of opposing this parcel tax to send a message and then approving one in the spring would have been fraught with risk and certainly would have increased the heartache for teachers in the district – who were not involved in the controversial decisions.
In the end, the implicit message should have been – if you have a problem with the school board, vote out the members that you have a problem with. Don’t take out your anger on the kids.
And that’s precisely what happened. The voters voted for Measure H in an overwhelming manner, while incumbent Susan Lovenburg was narrowly voted out. Agree or disagree with AIM or that decision, that is the right way to approach this.
So now that we know that the voters are intelligent and discerning, can we drop the charade about keeping quiet about district controversies?
The district has actually had more than its share of controversies, and yet the voters renewed the parcel tax – increased its base value and increased its length.
The district has managed to survive the biggest local controversy in recent years – the Nancy Peterson volleyball saga. Decisions by a sitting board member to take her feud with a volleyball coach public ended up with Ms. Peterson resigning in 2014. Two board members may have lost their political careers over it – Sheila Allen lost a bid for city council and Susan Lovenburg did not win a third seat on the school board. But it didn’t cost the district the parcel tax.
The AIM issue had some bumps in the last year and a half, as well. The decision to blindside people with more extensive changes to the program. The 3-2 decision to not retain Deanne Quinn. The 3-2 decision to reduce the number of strands to two, when the parents were promised three. The poor handling of a testing error. Parents were angry at these, but they took their anger out on the school board candidates, not the parcel tax.
The Vanguard this fall pulled no punches. We published a controversial letter by a parent against a school psychologist. We published a lawsuit filed against the former principal at North Davis. And we published a letter from a parent about the AIM testing snafu.
The fact is, those three articles were among the most widely read articles the Vanguard has published this fall – each of them getting multiple thousands of reads – and yet the voters still voted for the parcel tax.
To me, that is evidence that we do not have to pull back on critical stories even during an election. We don’t have to bury problems in the school system. We can be out front and open when something goes wrong, and attempt to fix it without fear of retribution from the voters on the parcel tax.
The voters are not going to punish the kids for some errors by the leadership. There could not have been a bigger controversy than the Nancy Peterson one, and yet two years later the parcel tax was renewed by a fairly wide margin.
Make no mistake – while I am grateful to the school district for the education it has provided my kids, this district has at times sat back on its laurels. We have not addressed the achievement gap in a satisfactory manner. We have a very good district, but we still have a ways to go to become a great district.
Hopefully we can have these discussions without fear that the parcel tax will be voted out – the voters in Davis are not going to do that.
—David M. Greenwald reporting