Why did you come to Davis? I came to Davis to get a great education at UC Davis, but I stayed at Davis because we have great schools. I’m sure I’m not alone. I can’t really afford to live here even on what would appear on paper to be decent combined salaries.
I love the engagement and intellectual atmosphere of this community. I have sacrificed more than people can imagine to live here. But without the schools and giving three wonderful kids a chance at a great life, I’m not sure I would stay here.
Those of you who have been reading the Vanguard for awhile know that this is not a new argument for me – I have been arguing for some time that Davis as a whole faces an existential crisis and that this community is going to have to make tough choices.
I was actually pleased to see the school board acknowledge, at least on one level, what I have been warning for some time – we are at the limits as to what the school district can do to give our kids a great education. They are pushing back against borrowed time, but at some point the inevitable is going to happen and Davis will just have decent schools – they will not be great schools because we will no longer be able to afford a first rate education.
That time is coming a lot faster than we think.
On Thursday, the discussion was whether to put forth a ballot measure that would raise parcel taxes to $980 per year. Let us start by putting this into perspective. In 2007, the first year I covered a parcel tax election, they were looking to renew the parcel tax at $100 in order to continue some special programs like seven-period days, music and art programs.
In 2016, we passed a parcel tax that took us to $620. Some, including Alan Fernandes and myself, were pushing for $960 to give the school district extra leeway, but the majority was not ready to do that.
We are now looking at a 58 percent increase in the parcel tax to take it from $620 to $980. The worst part of this is that this kind of increase is not going to make this district better – it is simply going to be, in effect, building a dike to hold off the flood waters for another portion of a decade, if that long.
Here’s the thing, the current per pupil revenue is right about 97 percent of the state average. We are at or slightly below average for the district. So why are we struggling to pay our teachers a competitive wage?
The basic answer is that we have decided to keep a lot of programs that many other districts have gotten rid of. That is a good thing. But we have done this at the expense of teacher compensation.
The reality is that this is nothing new. It was interesting listening to members of the board speculating on why we have always paid our teachers less than other districts – some have speculated that’s because we were paying teachers a second salary in a family where the main income earner worked at UC Davis.
Whatever the cause, Alan Fernandes summed it up nicely.
“Why has there been this perhaps decades-long historical situation that we’ve placed ourselves in as a community,” Mr. Fernandes continued. “We can no longer sort of rest on that, given the fact that we’re looking at teacher shortages.
“We’re going to have to become more and more competitive as a district,” he said.
The district remains unique, but we are about to lose that edge without continued influx of new money.
He said: “Yes we’re unique. Yes we have every kind of program that you can imagine… We offer and I’m proud as we all are of the educational offerings that we have in this public school system. But I submit to you now, that we need to take proactive action now so that we are in position ten years from now to remain competitive.”
And just like that – he said it. If we don’t do something now, we are not going to be able to attract and retain quality teachers ten years from now. This is the exact point that I have been making for a long time.
There are three other key points raised by the board on Thursday.
A public commenter suggested they would be willing to pay a parcel tax for programs but not for teacher salaries. We have heard this whispered in the community a number of times.
Cindy Pickett pushed back on this point: She pointed out that we talk about them as though they’re separate things.
“Frankly it doesn’t make sense to me,” she said, to fund our programs but not do our best to retain our teachers. “I get that these programs are important, but the quality of the program rests on whether we have the best teachers and we’re retaining these qualified teachers and excellent teachers that we have.
“When I think about the proposal, I see teacher compensation as actually being at the center of it and the programs are there because we have those teachers,” Ms. Pickett said.
She added, “If we don’t compensate our teachers fairly and equitably compared to surrounding districts – we are losing them. I think that message – maybe it’s not coming through to the community. It’s hard to see that people aren’t applying (to jobs in the district).”
Second, Joe DiNunzio argued what I have frequently – we undervalue education.
“We undervalue education in this country, period,” he said. “We are under-investing in the next generation. It’s terrible.”
Mr. DiNunzio pointed out that, while the governor is prioritizing education, “to expect the state to address this completely is folly.” He added, “It’s also frustrating because so much of our budget is out of our control.”
He agreed with his colleagues that “this is a critical priority for us and we have to address teacher compensation.”
Finally, several board members raised the comment that teachers increasingly can’t afford to live in Davis.
Joe DiNunzio stated that, on an average teacher salary, “it’s still going to be near impossible to afford an average home in Davis.”
Bob Poppenga repeated that California is at the bottom of the nation in per pupil funding of education. “I don’t see that changing any time soon,” he said.
“Over the years, we have asked our schools to do more with less,” he said. “I don’t think our teachers are compensated to the degree that it is warranted.”
He pointed out that new teachers are coming out with college debt, and they can’t afford to live in Davis.
“The state’s not going to save us,” he said. “There’s not going to be an increased stream of revenue for public education any time soon.”
This is exactly it. We are on the edge, Davis is not going to be a priority for anyone at the state to save because, frankly, we are still doing better than many districts at least on educational outcome – but we are right on that edge.
I particularly liked the fact that they raised the affordability of housing issue – because teacher retention and the future of our schools is inextricably linked to cost of living.
As I argued last fall, we treat these things as though we can deal with the city silo separate from the school silo – and we cannot.
The final thing that I really loved was that Alan Fernandes did not wait until 2020 to raise this issue. And Joe DiNunzio did not jump in with both feet and support this.
This isn’t going to be a walk in the park. The district is planning to hold public subcommittee meetings – transparency and accountability is going to come to the forefront.
The district needs to come together with the city and these issues must be laid bare – because, frankly, both the school district and the city are in the same boat. We cannot continue to do things as we have in this community and expect a continuation of our great standard of living. We are facing something catastrophic.
Oh yes, it is slow moving. But we are sliding down the path toward mediocrity. If we want this to remain the great and vital community in which we have all invested our future, we are going to have to change things in our present.
—David M. Greenwald reporting