The school board has a tough call to make. The polling that came back is right in the gray area, as we have noted in previous commentaries. On the one hand, right now, 65 percent of likely voters indicate support for the parcel tax – and 65 percent is an optimistic number as it includes leaners. Traditionally the polling has proven accurate in 2016, when they pulled support for the parcel tax at 74 percent and it ended up being 72 percent, right in the margin of error.
The pollsters called the numbers “feasible though challenging.” The district voters show 79 percent support for maintaining the quality of schools, but not only is a two-thirds bar challenging, there is dropping trust in the district management of tax dollars – and overall the belief that taxes are already high enough is fairly low at 37 percent, but that is not only incrementally growing over time but is also exceeding the threshold of being able to defeat a tax measure.
Tom Adams was largely correct when he talked about the need of “linking the good job that our teachers are doing, and keeping the quality of our schools,” which he believed could provide “a nexus of support” for a ballot measure.
As the pollster remarked, among “the messages that we tested, the most compelling reason to support a parcel tax measure is that great teachers are a centerpiece of student achievement,” and “retaining good teachers” is important so “they don’t go to another district.”
My read of these numbers is that winning is feasible and there isn’t a great alternative to the parcel tax, but it is going to take an actual campaign that aims to firm up people on the fence and tie community quality of life to school outcomes.
While I agree with Tom Adams that tying district outcomes to teachers is critical, there is another factor here. If we look at areas where the district is performing poorly with the voters, it has to do with trust and management of district monies. The trust in management of district money is at a low 56 percent, while the overall rating for management of district monies is 31 percent positive and 35 percent negative.
I question a bit as to how real that actually is, rather than perception. But to the extent that it is real, it might be related to fact that the district recently gave raises to the administrators and that administrator compensation is near the top – “DJUSD spends the second highest amount, 13% more than the Comparative Set average on Administrative Salaries.”
Along the same lines, the perceived need for funding for the district among voters has fluctuated over time, from a high of 67 percent in April 2018 to a low of 55 percent in February 2018. Currently it is at 61 percent.
In my view, the alternatives are not good. Yes, we can reduce spending. But that is going to impact quality of education. The numbers suggest by cutting things like the 7th period, libraries, paraeducators and counselors, we can cut $2.8 to $3.2 million needed to increase compensation.
It would take voters’ approval. It would not be an ideal first step.
One of our readers suggested: (1) eliminating the senior exemption at the current rate; (2) ending interdistrict transfers, (3) close a Junior High and Elementary School, (4) reduce the paraeducator program, and (5) reduce or eliminate King High.
In my view, there are problems with that approach. We could eliminate exemptions but that would take a new vote. The problem is that if that succeeds (which it might) it might generate around $1 million, but it would make passing the next parcel tax increase much harder. Imagine the 65 percent proposal with five percent less of support. We would likely be losing at a losing proposition rather than one on the bubble.
Ending interdistrict transfers is going to cost money not save it. Closing a junior high and elementary school would on paper save about $1.3 million, but given what we saw from 2006-2008 with regard to school closures, it might be pennywise and pound foolish. The paraeducator program is a good program, but is definitely one that would go if we had to cut. Reducing or eliminating King High doesn’t seem like a lot of bang for the buck and could end up costing more in the long run.
So what should the district do? Get out to the voters. My recommendation, since we are probably looking at November 2020, is to have Matt Best and Bruce Colby along with Alan Fernandes and Joe DiNunzio go make presentations to every PTA, to every service organization (Rotary and Odd Fellows among others), to the Chamber, to clubs and religious institutions and just lay out the facts – what the numbers are, what the options are, what the stakes are.
The campaign is going to be a little different. You can’t just target supporters. You have to target the people who are leaning yes, those in the middle, and those leaning no.
As I argued last fall, this is an issue of quality of life. People come to Davis for the schools, stay in Davis for the schools and many believe property values are linked with the schools. We have good schools, but we are on the bubble of keeping them that way, and if this community wishes to maintain our schools, we have to support them with additional local money.
That’s the case to make and the future of our schools depends on our ability to make that case.
—David M. Greenwald reporting