By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – It should be good news, despite fears of the need for massive cuts for the school district and state government in the wake of the pandemic and economic shutdown last spring, that this has not materialized.
But as we have seen locally, the budget picture is still not good. The school district last week reported that they will operate with a small surplus this year, but the district is facing cuts of around $1.58 million in the 2022-23 budget and $1.04 million in the 2023-24 budget.
As we noted back in March, the district, like much of the state, is facing continued declining enrollment—over the past 15 years the district has lost an average of 76 students but gained 56 non-resident students each year. That is slowly bleeding the budget, but not nearly as bad as it would be without the out-of-district transfers.
The district said they still do not know what will happen with the pandemic drop in enrollment of 300 students from 2019 to now—which could add up to a loss of $3 million in state funding.
Tom Adams called the situation “short term rich and long term poor.”
Meanwhile, Board President Joe DiNunzio noted that a huge problem has been the cost of pensions. He said that “we are going to need to make $2.6 million in reductions between 22-23 and 23-24.”
Let us return to the theme that I have been pressing on since at least 2018. The school district has a problem, but so too does the whole community. The district has continued to plug that problem with short-term fixes.
In 2016, the district renewed their parcel tax. Rather than attempting to solve long-term funding, the district simply attempted to renew the parcel tax with an inflator.
As I pointed out at the time, we asked for too little and were simply punting the problem down the road.
In 2020, the district avoided another problem by getting voters to support a new parcel tax, with 68 percent of the vote, to fund increased teacher compensation.
Now in fairness to the district, immediately after that parcel tax passed, the district and indeed the world was hit with the pandemic, which scrambled everything including district priorities.
I have continued to support parcel taxes in part because the district is disadvantaged by the statewide funding system. Moreover, as discussed at length in subcommittee meetings by Alan Fernandes and Joe DiNunzio, the alternatives—programmatic cuts and school closures—were shown to be unappetizing.
Unfortunately none of what we are seeing is surprising. DJUSD has managed to survive almost crisis by crisis over the last 13 years. Sometimes we have had to take a hit—lay some teachers off. But, for the most part, the district has survived by escalating its parcel tax.
We can point to several factors—the state funding system which gives Davis about 85 percent of a dollar for its classroom funding, rising pension costs, and of course declining enrollment.
Davis has managed to survive these largely through increasingly escalating parcel taxes, which started out at $100 in 2007 to the point where we added another $198 to the existing $680, and of course through out-of-district student transfers to blunt the impact of declining enrollment.
But how long can those patches continue to hold the DJUSD boat afloat? What is the long term plan? How do we plan to adjust?
It’s of course not just DJUSD that is facing a long term decline in sustainable funding—it is the community as a whole.
The city of Davis, as we have pointed out over the past five years, faces similar problems—a lack of a sustainable revenue source, increasing costs of house, inability to provide new housing for families, and eventually a declining infrastructure and other problems associated with that.
We tend to treat city and school issues in a silo, but they are actually related.
For example, while one problem has been the decline of births in the area to the lowest level in 20 years, a lot of this is about demographics as much as the overall decline of birth rate in the state and the nation.
But the second problem cited by Davis demographics last spring is the lack of new housing—especially for families.
While there are over 800 city-approved residential units planned within the next five years, “75% are apartments that typically do not house school age children.” Most are designated as student housing. While the report perhaps discounts the potential for the apartments to free up single family homes, the lack of housing currently planned beyond the currently approved units weighs heavily on this.
“Total enrollment has been fairly level over the last 10 years,” they found, but “resident student population (is) declining)” with “increased IDT’s (helping) mask decline.”
In short, the housing crisis impacting the city—that we are debating right now with the housing element—has implications for the school district.
And while there are certainly those who will not be concerned about issues of quality of schools or declining enrollment, the problem is larger than just the schools. The overall quality of life in our community is threatened by things like declining quality of schools, lack of money to invest in infrastructure like roads and parks and other amenities—and that is the real threat that our city faces.
The problem is that this is a long-term, slow decline, and so many people will simply not notice the problem until it’s too late. We are in a pot of water and we are not yet noticing that we are slowly cooking to death.
—David M. Greenwald reporting
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