Sunday Commentary: Ultimately the Voters Will Decide the Direction of DJUSD

Joe DiNunzio and Alan Fernandes have led the way toward the question of a parcel tax

The Davis School Board has a difficult to decision to make.  It is not one they are taking lightly, as they have spent hours in meetings attempting to formulate a better understanding of the district’s finances.

The reasons for the teacher compensation gap is at once straightforward but also complex.  The most basic reasons are fairly well-known – the district is disadvantaged by the LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula) funding process.  The district has increased their local commitment from $100 per parcel as recently as 2007 to now over $625, and soon perhaps to over $900 per parcel per year.

But the money currently received through parcel tax still takes the district to about three to five percent short of the average district.  Moreover, that is not strictly general fund money.  It is money that is attached to programs that other districts cannot afford – music, art, drama, and even the seven-period day.

At the most basic level the community has a choice.  We can continue to prioritize these programs and find additional revenue to close the teacher compensation gap, or we can find additional local revenue to close that gap – permanently, the board hopes.

What is interesting to me is that, while the compensation gap exists both at the entry level and the top levels, it is much wider at the bottom (perhaps ten percent compared to four percent at the top).  But there is a peculiarity in the distribution of teachers that perhaps we did not appreciate fully.

To put it simply, most of the teachers we have are more experienced and better trained.  While that might alleviate concerns about quality of education, at least in the sum, it does make it so that we are actually paying more per full time equivalent per pupil than you might expect, given the compensation gap.

As Matt Best put it, “We don’t get beginning teachers because our pay for beginning teachers is second lowest in the region.”

The school board’s hope is that they can convince the public to further invest in our local education system.  A key question is whether the taxpayers will be willing to take another plunge and go from about $625 to over $900 per year.  That’s around a 50 percent tax increase – no small matter.

In the past the school district has had pretty consistent support – with the exception of a low approval in 2012 for Measure E where only 67 percent (a bare two-thirds majority) supported a parcel tax increase, support for the parcel tax has ranged from about 69 percent to 73 percent.  That means opposition has peaked at about 33 percent percent in 2012, but has generally been in the range of 27 to 31 percent.

The district will poll the population as they have done in the past.  While it is probably wise to take the temperature of the population, the district has often used these numbers as an upward bound on how much to ask for.  That was perhaps a mistake in 2016 when they used the poll to stick with a status quo plus inflation ask for the voters, rather than the more aggressive $960 that people like Alan Fernandes pushed for, knowing – correctly – that we would need more soon.  And sure enough…

The district has never taken a real chance here by having to run a robust, high stakes campaign, with professional consultants, sophisticated voter identification processes – a real high stakes campaigns against an organized opposition.

Will that happen now?

Gregg Cook has spoken a few times at the board meeting, pushing “a program audit” to understand whether “you getting the biggest bang for the buck.”  He also called for a line item budgeting process.

Then there is a letter from Vernette Marsh: “There are no ‘freebies.’  It may be politically advantageous to create a budget on ‘wants,’ and if the costs exceed revenues, propose tax and more tax. How many times can you go to the watering trough before it runs dry?”

She concludes: “I hope if it goes to a vote that those who vote are smarter than the members of the school board, sending a message that escaping the inevitable through taxation does not absolve the board from its responsibility.”

Finally, there is a post on the Vanguard Facebook page under the article about the hire of Barbara Archer by the city as a communications manager.  This, while not directly related to the school district, still gives us some insight into potential anti-tax mentality.

The commenter notes: “So Davis doesn’t have the funds to maintain its streets but somehow can create and afford new high paying positions?  No wonder people are balking at new taxes.”  He adds: “No more new taxes until the city tightens its belt.”

In March 2018, the district polled on a parcel tax and found at that time, even at about a $200 parcel tax, “Initial support for a parcel tax measure is just shy of the two-thirds threshold in this poll.”  However, “Once voters have heard how additional revenue will benefit local schools and students, total support increases.”

However, the pollsters warn that “a measure could be vulnerable to opposition.”

That poll had mixed news.  The good news, 81 percent of the public believes “maintaining the quality of our schools should be a top priority, even if it means raising taxes.”

Also, 78 percent believe that increasing pay for local teachers and other educations should be a top priority, again “even if it means raising taxes.”

But scoring in at just 64 percent is the statement, “I trust the Davis Joint Unified School District to properly manage tax dollars.”

That was just a year ago – so it seems less likely that things will change.  But that’s fine – the district needs to make this a very simple proposition, as the public needs to understand that they have the choice between helping to maintain programs and closing the compensation gap, and the choice to choose between programs and compensation for teachers.

We now have the data to make a case to the public and soon it will be up to them, rather than the board.

—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 Comment

  1. Jim Hoch

    The point I believe you are missing is the senior exemption. As Davis ages a larger percentage of people are eligible for the exemption and as you raise the tax people will be more incentivized to file for the exemption.

    Davis may find that even if the tax passes it may bring in less money than you imagine. If the board were wiser they would have put another parcel tax on the ballot for the same amount but with no exemptions. If it passed they would have more revenue and a good precedent for the future and if it failed it would not have hurt revenue.

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