On Thursday, the school board took time out from its summer recess to hold a meeting that lasted all of 25 minutes. During that time, Alan Fernandes explained where he stood with his parcel tax, and the board decided to go ahead with a quick appointment process to fill Madhavi Sunder’s seat for the final four months (August to November).
In attendance were the two announced, but not yet filed candidates for board positions, Cindy Pickett and Joe DeNunzio.
For all of the effort going on, it is fair to say that our schools, locally especially, are facing an existential threat. We have managed to paper over the magnitude of the problem, but the time to have to face reality is coming soon.
The threat is that because of demographics and housing prices in Davis, we no longer have a large pool of local students to fill our schools. We have managed to paper over this problem in two ways. First through funding, by having a local parcel tax to fill the gap between what we get from the state and what we need to maintain our high levels of programs.
Second, through inter-district transfers where large numbers of students whose parents work in town but don’t live here are able to attend school here.
The reality is that cracks are appearing. The loss of Measure I in the city shows an increasing reluctance on the part of voters to approve more parcel taxes. School parcel tax polling shows that another measure would be right on the margin and Alan Fernandes has decided to think outside of the box by putting a majority ballot measure on the ballot through the initiative process rather than a two-thirds vote by action of the school board.
Funding is more and more critical, with a teacher compensation funding gap straining the resources.
Finally, the otherwise apparent decline of enrollment has largely been masked by the out-of-district transfers. Is that something that’s about to come to an end? There have been rumors for some time that districts like Woodland may put a stop to the practice. After all, that marks a drain of resources from one district to our own.
What is most ironic, then, is that while schools are vital issue in this community, the people running for school district positions may not play a direct hand in saving them at this time.
I am not saying there aren’t policies to be put in place to help things out. After all, we need creative thinking to generate new ways to fund programs, new ways to better compensate teachers, and new ways to cut existing spending while maintaining our core programs.
But ultimately it might be left to forces outside of the school board to determine the future of the school district.
There are two things that we as a community need to look at long and hard. The first is what I will call the quality of life decline. This is a slow burn issue and that makes it difficult to see while you are in the middle of it. But it is happening and it is going to take this entire community from the place that we have known and loved for the last several decades and threaten its existence.
That’s a dramatic statement, but it is fairly accurate.
We see the signs: the city and school district both lack long-term funding for programs, services and even basic infrastructure. Take the city: we are facing an $8 million shortfall that is not a typical shortfall – rather it is the gap between what we have coming in and what we need to maintain our basic infrastructure like roads, parks, greenbelts, city buildings, etc. I would venture to say $8 million is a low estimate.
The biggest problem we have is that we lack per capita revenue from business. We are accustomed to a high level of city services but, unless something changes, we cannot afford those services or those amenities, and we are going to see a rapid decline in the quality of life.
The problem is that it’s a slow process. One councilmember I met with recently said it is like we are slowly falling off a cliff and we might be half way down, and our reaction is to say, things are okay right now – but that’s an illusion as we simply haven’t hit the bottom with the big splat.
The schools are headed the same way. We are going to try to pass a facilities bond to upgrade our 50-year-old facilities. We lack the resources without a parcel tax to pay for a teacher compensation gap and that has led to concerns about losing quality teachers and the trade off between teachers and programs.
We can create a stopgap measure through a parcel tax, but the biggest problem right now is that we are facing declining enrollment and fewer students living in this community.
The problem that the city and schools face is related. And the solutions are as well. We need to figure out a way to do more economic development in order to create tax revenue, new jobs, and wealth for this community.
The other thing we need is to figure out a way to provide affordable housing that will enable more families to live here in Davis and raise their kids.
Neither of these are solutions strictly for the school district – both will require concerted community discussion and planning.
We have choices, as Davis is changing. Do we wish for Davis to become even more of a community for an aging core and college students, or can we find ways – creative and innovative – to bring in housing that people with children can afford?
That is the challenge ahead of us for the next two years, four years, and beyond.
—David M. Greenwald reporting