In 2007, the DJUSD school board put a parcel tax on the ballot for renewal. It was the same amount they had been doing for well over a decade – $100. It was my first time covering the schools and little did I realize that the world was about to change.
The next year, even before the crash of the US economy, DJUSD was feeling the hurt. They had choices at that time. They had just voted to close Valley Oak. They looked at additional school closures. They looked at deep cuts to discretionary programs like music and art.
But the parents came out in mass to support another path forward. The community came forward with enough donations to forestall deep cuts and the community overwhelmingly backed a parcel tax that fall, to supply the needed money.
That didn’t solve the problem and so, over the next decade, we saw a pattern – some cuts and a steady dose of tax increases – so that in 2016, the parcel tax was up to $620 per parcel.
That was a mistake. We knew in 2016 that $620 wasn’t going to be enough. The Vanguard argued for $960. Alan Fernandes argued for $960. The rest of the board wouldn’t go there.
The reality is that $960 or whatever the district decides to put on the ballot for next November is not going to be enough either. The reality is that there will come a point when Davis no longer has great schools. And that day is probably not today. But it is coming.
Let me lay this out. I have been arguing this point since last summer. It was a reason I put my name in the hat for an ill-fated appointment opportunity to the board last summer. No one wanted to listen. It is even more clear now.
There are three different problems at play here. First, of all the school district is disadvantaged by the LCFF (Local Control Funding Formula) funding system. We have long known this is a problem – because the district has a lower percentage of at-risk students and economically disadvantaged students, they get the minimum grant from the state. That means that to get back up to an average spending district, the district has had to rely on local parcel taxes.
The second problem is structural. The state spends a little more than $10,000 per student on education, which is about $2000 less than the national average. That puts California, when accounting for the cost of living, about 41st in the nation.
In case you’re wondering, Davis gets about a good deal less than $10,000 per pupil from the state. At its maximum, it gets $9269 per student for high school students, and for K-8 the number is around $8000 per student.
The third problem has to do with local demographics. The reality is that, due to the lack of new housing for families, the local population of school-aged children is declining. That means for each student that the district loses, they lose somewhere between $8000 and $9000.
The district thus has three things going against it – the state of California is not paying enough for K-12 education, the district is disadvantaged within the state in terms of state funding, and it is losing students.
To compensate for the first and third problems, the district has done two things. First, it has passed an ever-increasing parcel tax which has gone from $100 in 2008 to $620 today and perhaps over $900 by 2021. Second, it has shored up the loss of students through out-of-district transfers.
There is a lot of controversy over the out-of-district transfers, but there shouldn’t be. Replacing a lost student who lives in Davis with one who lives in Woodland is basically cost neutral. By keep attendance stable, for now, the district is maintaining its ADA (average daily attendance) money, which is advantageous.
The longer-term reality, however, is not promising. Davis is not going to maintain great schools if the number of children who live in Davis continues to decline. I’m not arguing that Davis should grow to maintain great schools. However, I do think that Davis should take into consideration what they want the demographics of this town to look like in 10 to 20 years – that issue should be part of long-term planning discussions.
The second point here is what I want to focus on. Right now the district has maintained its funding stream for the better part of the last decade through a steady increase in parcel tax.
I would argue that is not sustainable either.
I think the district can and probably will get a parcel tax passed in 2020. The polling, however, shows even that is right on the bubble. We have drilled under the numbers but here – in summary version – are some of the key ones.
Hard support for a $300 parcel tax is about 62-64 percent with enough leaners to make it close, but the community will have to run a persuasion campaign to get the voters over the top. Given this community’s support for education, that’s possible and I think likely to occur.
But underneath the numbers are a growing distrust for the money management in the school district, and the most ominous one is that 37 percent believe they are already paying too much in taxes.
For me, that’s the number to watch and, while it can be overcome in the short-term, I don’t see how it can be overcome in the longer term.
So let us suppose that they put the parcel tax on the ballot for 2020, it passes, the district is able to increase salary and compensation for teachers. What happens when the next recession hits, what happens when the district needs to go to the well again?
At some point, the district is going to run out of the ability to ask for more money locally, and then what? The “and then what” is what we should be focusing on and we aren’t.
Look, a lot can change – California can put out more money for schools, laws on funding can change, the city could change its growth policies, etc. But if great schools depend on “what ifs,” that’s not a proposition that I would take to the bank.
—David M. Greenwald reporting