Before the school board put the parcel tax on the ballot, they did something very unusual – they had a subcommittee meet for about six months to discuss the options, go over the finances, and understand fully the nature of the district’s fiscal reality.
That they ended up in the same place they began should not detract from that process.
When I read the ballot arguments against the parcel tax, I realized quickly something else – the opponents of the tax measure had not attended any of those meetings. I checked with some of the participants to make sure I hadn’t missed it but was told, as far as they knew, no one had.
This becomes glaringly obvious when they write: “Our district receives four times more voter-levied tax dollars/student than any other district in our region. The DJUSD currently receives funds from four separate parcel tax increases. Since 2010, the amount of parcel tax a Davis homeowner pays to support Davis schools has increased by more than 100%.”
That might be a strong argument if all else were equal. But the problem that we knew going into this process and which became glaringly obvious throughout was that all was not equal.
The average district received $12,228 per student. At DJUSD, even with the parcel tax, it was $11,582 or about 95% of state average. While that seems reasonable, without the parcel tax that amount drops to $10,333 (84.5%).
That means that the parcel tax that is higher than most up until now was still only getting DJUSD from 84.5% of the state average to 95% of state average.
But as Alan Fernandes and Joe DiNunzio learned during the course of their inquiry, even that is somewhat of an illusion. The parcel tax is not just general fund money. It has already been allocated to fund specific programs that other districts have decided not to fund.
Thus, arguing that we are paying more already in parcel taxes misses this fundamental point. Had the opponents attended these publicly available sessions, they would have at least understood the nature of this problem.
Nevertheless, they do ask the fundamental underlying question: “Might existing funds be better used to increase teacher salaries?”
Yes, the district has a choice here. The choice is about maintaining teacher salaries that are below average. In a way, they have already chosen to go away from that path. They agreed to an increase in compensation before they got the funding to fund it long term.
That leaves a choice between program cuts and a parcel tax.
In order to cut a lot of these programs, interestingly enough, the district would have to go back to the voters. That is because, while programs like libraries, sit-support services, 7th period and counseling could provide the type of cost savings the district is looking for, each of those are funded by the parcel tax – which would require the district to go back to the voters and remove those programs from the parcel tax and replace them with teacher compensation.
“The 7th period day allows for a breadth of programming that most schools don’t have,” Matt Best explained, noting that a key difference between Davis and Rocklin was that Davis had about 1/7th more offerings of electives because of the 7th period.
Alan Fernandes explained, “That means we’re cutting music and our foreign language offerings and we’re cutting art.”
Alan Fernandes: “In order to get to a place where we’re closing the compensation gap in a meaningful long term way, to do it based on this list, is to fundamentally change what our district is, which is to say that we’ll now become what other districts are and look like in order to pay them.”
Associate Superintendent Matt Best calculated that the compensation gap was between $2.8 and $3.2 million. By contrast, closing an elementary school saves a little over half-million, while going to two junior highs would save $700,000.
The concern expressed by the administration and board, as articulated by Matt Best, was: “Cost reductions will impact the quality and amount of educational programs and services.” He added, “If you want to maintain the quality while raising revenue, it needs to be revenue based.”
He pointed out that “cost reductions will limit budget flexibility in the face of an economic downturn or unexpected changes.”
In the end, the board had little interest in exploring program cuts.
For Boardmember Joe DiNunzio, he noted that last fall there was not a lot of appetite in this community for cutting programs.
He said, “We’re not suggesting any of these things – we want to have a comprehensive look at what our options are.” He stated, “This was done in the interest of putting everything out on the table.
“The analysis showed that we are already running an efficient operation,” he continued. “The options above bringing more revenue in is going to require cutting staff – and that means cutting programs. And we saw in all of these meetings, no appetite for that.”
Ultimately it is going to be the voters’ choice on these issues. For the new parcel tax to be implemented, two-thirds of the voters will need to approve it. If even 33.4 percent of the voters say no, the district will have to go back to the drawing board, either with a reduced parcel tax or a cuts-only plan.
—David M. Greenwald reporting