My View: If We Want to Pass a Parcel Tax Closing Teacher Compensation Gap – We Need to Go Hyper-Transparent

For much of the past year, at least, I have operated on a simple thesis – Davis is going to run into a quality of life wall, if you will.  My basic point is this – while this community remains a nice place to live and we continue to have good schools today, if we do not act proactively both on the city and school front that will not be the case as we approach 2030.

The reason for the problem is basically the same – we lack the ability to generate additional revenue to fund our city programs and fund our school programs.

As much as I appreciate the proactive approach of the school board and in particular Alan Fernandes and Joe DiNunzio who sit on the parcel tax subcommittee – I really disagree with them on the notion that they can somehow permanently solve this problem.  I view the parcel tax as a stopgap measure – not a solution.

But it is one we have to do.  Secondly, I appreciate the systematic approach that Joe DiNunzio has brought to this process.

One of my favorite teachers in school growing up had a simple technique that worked well. He would get to a math problem and tell the students, I don’t know how to solve this – can you help me?  He once told us that he adapted it from a day when he was thrust into an algebra class and, in fact, he really didn’t know how to do the problem and really did need the students to help solve it.

Joe DiNunzio has taken a similar approach – he has stated that he doesn’t really know the budget as well as his colleagues, and so he has asked a series of questions that he needs to know in order to get up to speed.  The reality is, the questions he is asking have been the questions I always hear from community members when they don’t understand why Davis schools could have as much as a 10 percent salary gap.

The truth is Joe DiNunzio is asking key questions that the community needs to better understand in order to get behind a parcel tax.

As he pointed out last week at the subcommittee meeting, he wants to put out options even though they may well decide to reject them and go forward with a revenue measure.

He further wants to understand what revenue categories are out of sync with other benchmark districts and understand why that is the case. Once again he would like to explore possibilities for restructuring the revenue.

On teacher salary he wants to understand what the delta looks like, between Davis and other regional districts. How much additional spending is it going to take to take it to the regional average? Above average?

Finally, he said he would like to explore several potential ways to get us there. The first would be an increase in class size. The second would be a cut in teachers and program. Finally they could look at ways to save, and then at revenue enhancements.

Once again, he argued he does not foresee supporting cuts to programs or class sizes but he wants to understand – and by extension – the community to understand the economic programmatic tradeoffs.

Listening to a public comment from a community member on Tuesday was a good reminder of additional issues that should be addressed.

The citizen agreed that in order to support the continued quality of education in Davis, we must be able to recruit and retain good teachers and that a 10 percent compensation gap for Davis teachers is unacceptable.

But he raised a few points that have not been raised.

First, that the superintendent’s salary is 10 percent higher than in other districts, while the teacher pay is 10 percent lower.

Second, that we need to know where all of the money is going and what he recommends is a citizen’s advisory body to look at the 2019-20 budget to find out.

Third, he suggests a line-by-line review of the budget.

Fourth, he believes before we can put a parcel tax on the ballot, we should complete this review.

The superintendent issue, which we can extend to the upper administrative staff, is a big problem here.  When this salary increase was announced last year there were a lot of complaints in the community that I heard.  What I heard from the board at that time were two points.  First, we have a revolving door at superintendent level and the value that a good superintendent provides helps to set the stage for a more effective district.

Second, and just as important, this is symbolic money.  Even though the upper administration is paid a lot – their salaries and salary increases are not making the difference in terms of salaries for teachers.

While these points are correct, they are also tone-deaf to the importance of optics.  When people see the raw salary numbers and salary increases it creates a perspective.  Budgets are a demonstration of values and setting low teacher salaries and high administrative salaries sends the message that teachers are under-valued and administrators are over-valued.

Bottom line: deal with the optics head on.  This is an important issue for gaining public support for a harder than usual to swallow tax increase.

There is a widespread belief that government is inefficient and if we look thoroughly we can find cost-savings.  The reality is that I don’t think that’s really true.  But the public believes that.

That’s why I think what Joe DiNunzio has laid out is helpful – why is Davis so far behind on what we are paying teachers when we are effectively at 97 percent spending compared to other districts?

I think the questions he lays out are important.

Should we do a line by line?  Why not?  Be transparent.  If you don’t think there are cost savings, why not prove it to the skeptical public?

Also show the public – as Mr. DiNunzio suggested – what the trade off is.  What do we have to give up to fund the gap closure?  He doesn’t believe it will be palatable for the public – I tend to agree.  All the more reason to do the work.

Finally, there is the idea of a citizens commission.  Again I say – why not?  I understand it will take some time.  I also think that the idea sounds better than it is – but again, hide nothing.

The biggest thing that the district and board can do over the next 12 to 18 months is (A) go hyper-transparent – put everything out there; (B) do real outreach and not just to PTA and parent groups, but actually get into the community by going to service clubs, religious organizations, and other political groups; and (C) ask tough questions, answer all questions and think outside of your silo.

By doing this legwork in advance you can answer these questions by reasonable people who really do value a good education in this community.

At the end of the day the findings should only reinforce our existing belief – we have great schools but in the next decade without a lot of help, the quality of local education will decline.  Moreover, the state is not going to save us – so we have to.

—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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  1. Bill Marshall

    Yes, teacher compensation is a factor (variable) in the quality of DJUSD results… math lesson:  it is not a linear equation… there are other variables… also not all linear…

    The quality of DJUSD is over-‘hyped’… just like the Davis community “quality of life”… promoted, in both cases by Chamber types, realtors (a factor/variable in housing costs), and DJUSD to justify top admin staff compensation… 

    Yet, the main substance that I take away from this article is the need for a VERY open discussion of expenditures and revenues, and hopefully NOT a lot of “cheerleading”… good article, and realistic, in the main…

    Am open to increased taxes… but, having relatives in Missouri, SHOW ME… think that applies to many in town…

  2. Jim Frame

    First, we have a revolving door at superintendent level and the value that a good superintendent provides helps to set the stage for a more effective district.

    We’re 10% above average and we have a revolving door.  Would the door revolve faster or slower if we were average, or 20% above average, or 20% below average? Would programs improve or degrade?

    I wonder if the revolving door is baked into the position these days.  Are superintendents simply an itinerant breed now, always keeping an eye out for the next opening that’s going to offer them a bump in pay, carpetbagging around the state until they’ve gotten their retirement benefits jacked up to a sufficiently cushy level so they can bail out?  Where are the guys/gals like Floyd Fenocchio, the local guy who spent pretty much his whole career in one district?

      1. Bill Marshall

        Go back 20 years worth of superintendents, and let us know if that changes your 3:15 post… 
        Will say again, compensation is not necessarily related to competence.  Many variables.  Sometimes the least competent get the bigger bucks (negotiation/self-sales skills)… sometimes the most dedicated/competent get lesser than average… 
        We had one great superintendent… actually served his term as an “interim”… money was not his motivation…

    1. Bill Marshall

      Have heard, and experienced, that school Superintendents, and City Managers/City Administrators, are truly an “itinerant breed”… look at Davis’ past @ City Mgr… John Meyer had a long run, even though it was from him that I learned that the average ‘life expectancy’ of a CM was about 3-5 years…
      Look also at their histories… ex:  Pinkerton @ Manteca, then Davis… 
      I have opinions about that example, but it would be “off-topic”… 
      More to the point, in the “education business”, you’ll see the ‘progression’ of Superintendents in their past CV’s… it’s about the $, not about the service.  It’s a ‘business’… compensation does not guarantee competence…

  3. Edgar Wai

    Compensation is an interesting topic because it is normally viewed as inversely proportional to the positions honor.

    1. Highest honor: you work to make the community better without getting paid, or even if you get paid, you spend it on the community anyway.

    2. Your work involves community service and you are paid to do so by tax dollars, the public wonders whether you are worth your salary. Since you are paid by the public, the public considers your paid work a contract. You earn no honor in fulfilling the contract. You can only earn honor by going beyond the contracted level of service. 

    In either cases, I think we can see that the proper compensation is based on how much honor the person is willing to forgo. 

    Teacher 1: I have been buying stationery and supplies for the kids. If you pay me more, I will spend it on replacing the projector, a field trip, and explore new ways to teach better.

    Teacher 2: I have been commuting. If you pay me more, I want to live locally and have family here.

    Isn’t it more organic if the each teacher just tell the public what they want, and let the public voluntarily support whatever they was to support?

    Resident 1: I happen to have a lot of stationery and school supplies. I can just give them to you.

    Resident 2: I collect and fix projectors as a hobby, I can give you a better projector.

    Resident 3: I run a tour bus company, if you need a bus for field trip I will do it for free.

    Resident 4: I have a house that is too big for me, you can live with me or if you want the whole house I can move next door with my neighbor.

    1. Jim Hoch

      At my previous district the teachers had a an email list of parents and anytime they needed something or someone the sent a note out. Whether they needed a volenteer for some function or hand sanitizer or whatever, it was rarely more than 10 minutes before someone stepped up.

      1. Bill Marshall

        Interesting post… 
        Wonder if it would work in Davis (DJUSD)… or whether parents here just assume everyone (all taxpayers) should ‘step up to the plate’ for those things, at least financially… directly or via parcel taxes…
        Private schools (particularly parochial ones that serve a lot of very low income folks where tuition is reduced, or waived), often, actually do have to depend on what you describe about your former District… as the spouse of a teacher (public and private), we spent a bunch to “fill gaps”… think that tax deduction (10 cents on the dollar, Fed) has gone the way of the brontosaurus… gone…
        You had a good District, Jim… very cool how parents stepped up… 
        Thank you for that post… a good thinking/talking point…

        1. Jim Hoch

          Bill, when I arrived in Davis I was surprised by the school system especially considering the reputation. My 4th graders were far ahead of the DJU kids in math. My previous district had classrooms set up as learning stations so kids could focus on areas of weakness and take challenge assignments in their strengths. DJU still treats the entire class as a single cohort though perhaps that is not surprising given the superintendent thinks the best way way to relay information is to drone on in a monotone for ten minutes. Given his example of “best practices” nothing would surprise me. 
          DJU is not “parent friendly”, try to sign up for a school board maillist that alerts you to school board dates and agendas and get back to me. 

        2. Bill Marshall

          And I thought I was the only one who doesn’t believe all (any?) DJUSD teachers and staff walk on water…
          Your points should be part of the discussion moving forward… please continue to share your observations… they are needed… desperately…

  4. Bob Fung

    I agree that transparency is important and that many of the questions that DiNunzio are asking if answered will help with that.  One thing that hasn’t been talked about is a long-term financial forecast.  I think the school district needs to do a long-term financial forecast (20 years) in order to help the public understand what’s going on.   In a new League of California Cities study, they  forecast that annual pension obligations for CalPERS will double over the next 7 years.  The City of Davis has instituted a new forecast methodology which extends to 20 years and has forecast that its annual pension obligations are consistent with the trend and will double in 7 years.  I think its relevant to ask how CalSTRS (the organization that manages pensions for teachers) is forecasting pension obligations and what that means in the long-term for Davis schools.

  5. Jim Frame

    Yes, Jim… was talking about Floyd… he was aces… and a truly nice guy, to boot…

    I didn’t have a child in school when Floyd was still working, but I got to know him when my son and his grandson started playing on the same baseball team, from age 10 through high school.  Floyd was unflinchingly generous with his time, assistant-coaching at every game and practice until the JV/varsity years (when the pro staff took over).  We never talked politics — I think we probably occupied different parts of the political spectrum — but he was, indeed, one of the nicest, most even-tempered guys I’ve ever met.  (He’s got some super-nice kids, too.)  We really miss him, he left us way too early.

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