Commentary: Will Davis Really Be *Fine* without Serious Changes?

Chairs with desks attached in an empty classroom. There are windows on the right and a chalkboard in the back.

Chairs with desks attached in an empty classroom. There are windows on the right and a chalkboard in the back.By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Davis, CA – In February, the San Francisco voters ousted three school board members, who were seen as too focused on issues like racial justice.  But several months later, the district is struggling to survive.  New leaders are reluctant to step forward and teachers are leaving – there are currently, according to one tweet, 564 job openings in the district and more teachers will be resigning this summer.

While San Francisco is for certain an extreme situation, it echoes what is a systemwide problem – exacerbated by the pandemic and the strain put on teachers attempting to operate under extremely trying conditions.

Earlier this month, we received an email from our young child’s teacher from last year.  Like many others, she is leaving the profession most likely.  When we met her, she was a young, dynamic and energetic teacher, who taught with enthusiasm and compassion.  The profession cannot afford to lose young teachers of this caliber.

In her message to a number of parents, she wrote:

Unfortunately, I’ve made the incredibly difficult decision to resign from my position and I won’t be returning back to the classroom next year. 

As I’m sure all of you know, the profession is deeply unsustainable for educators and it’s taken an enormous toll on my mental and physical health, the last 4+ years that I’ve worked in various capacities in education. 

Sadly, the issues that affect the roles of educators are systemic, and without structural changes, the everyday labor conditions and output required of teachers is limitless, making the job a daunting and unending task behind the scenes for all of us (though our smiling faces and upbeat energy might not seem like it). So, I have to step away to take care of myself. 

Through it all, the humanizing aspects of the role have been what’s kept me going and I have honestly treasured every minute of being a maestra to your children and developing such special relationships with each of them. I have loved teaching them about how to be their best selves, wiping tears and giving hugs, being their cheerleader, pushing them to challenge injustice in all its forms, to meaningfully care for each other and our environment, and believing in them so they know they are deeply loved and valued. 

In my view, while the pandemic did not cause the underlying problems in education, it exacerbated them to the point where we are really facing a crisis in our education system.  Education is the pathway to prosperity in the contemporary world.

At the local level we have been fighting for more than a decade and a half to preserve what have been excellent schools.  We are fortunate in Davis.  Since 2007, the community has stepped up every time it has been called on to support its schools – including several times under emergency conditions, the most recent being in 2020 when the district needed money to be able to close the compensation gap.

Great schools have been a hallmark of our community since long before I moved here in 1996.  And make no mistake, they are being threatened like never before.

The cost of housing in Davis combined with constrained housing supply has largely pinched off the ability of our community to replenish itself.  There are fewer opportunities for families with school age children to move to this community, this community is increasingly out of reach of middle class families, and the result is a slow decline in enrollment and with it resources for schools.

Some have maintained that Davis is and will continue to be *fine* into the future.

But that’s not what I see.  What I see is a slow but sustained bleed that is very slowly, maybe even imperceptibly choking off the lifeblood of this community.  Moreover, it is all intermingled together.

One reason why this is not perhaps more apparent is that the school district has been able to apply temporary bandages to prevent the problem from becoming more urgent.  We have shored up our budget through parcel taxes and shored up our enrollment through interdistrict transfers.

But in the longer term, the lack of housing that is affordable for families means that their numbers are slowly declining.  Slow declines are devastating to schools because it means even if you are able to make big cuts to reduce costs, you constantly have fewer resources and are constantly attempting to shed costs.

It is not size that matters.  This not about right sizing the district.  Size really is irrelevant to this equation.

Rather, it is the year over year change that impacts whether the district is adding or subtracting resources.  If enrollment declines, the ADA money declines with it, but because of large percentages of fixed costs and economies of scale, you can’t shed costs in a one to one ration that allows you slide up and slide down with no worries.

A big culprit here is that Davis’ land use policies have choked off its ability to provide housing for families that they can afford.

As we have pointed out, it is really the whole package – Davis has become less affordable, it has especially become less affordable for people with school aged children, many of whom will not be able to work in Davis unless they work for the university.

The community already has a fiscal gap between what it does spend and what it needs to spend on things like services, amenities, and infrastructure.

One of the big problems that Davis faces is that this is not going to be a quick and sharp decline.  This is the proverbial frog in a pot of water.  The water is not yet boiling which would alert us that there is a serious problem.  Instead, the water is slowly increasing in temperature, and by the time most of our residents realize how hot the water is, it will be too late.

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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7 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    I’m actually glad to see that David is acknowledging his actual interest, which I’ve long suspected.

    It’s not the city, it’s the school district – which refuses to “right-size” to match the needs of the community.

    The latter is the change that needs to be made.  And it will be. The claim that this won’t save money is coming from the same school district which is resisting this change, and it is driven by self-interest.

    Enrollment is expected to continue declining for the state as a whole, and in Yolo county.

    Even Woodland has declining enrollment (probably mostly due to the fact that Davis “poaches” its students, even as it continues to pursue sprawl). Some in Woodland also choose to attend the massive religious school, which I believe covers grades K-8, not sure.

  2. David Greenwald

    Perhaps I did not explain this point well enough…

    It is not size that matters.  This not about right sizing the district.  Size really is irrelevant to this equation.

    Rather, it is the year over year change that impacts whether the district is adding or subtracting resources

    You can’t “right size” a school district.  That’s not the issue.  It’s not the actual size that matters, it is whether the enrollment is declining because if the enrollment is declining, ADA money declines, and as long as that happens, districts have trouble reducing costs on a one-to-one basis year over year.  So Bruce Colby and Matt Best explained to me a few years ago, because of fixed costs, the district can only save about .60 cents on the dollar it loses from declining enrollment.  It doesn’t matter if the district is 9000 students or 8000 students, if the enrollment continues to go down, the district will have fiscal challenges.

    1. Ron Oertel

      You can’t “right size” a school district.  That’s not the issue.

      That’s an absurd claim.  Operating a school district which is larger than what a community actually needs is more-expensive than operating a smaller one.

      Total costs are less to educate one student, vs. 100 students.  Unless the system itself fails to adjust.  Even if the “per-student” cost rises, as enrollment declines.

      As others have explained on here, each student is already costing the community more than it receives from the state.  You don’t save money by purposefully adding costs.

      Referring to claims from the school district itself (which is driven by self-preservation) is not a valid way to analyze this.

      If “economies of scale” was the only factor, large, dysfunctional school districts (such as those in Sacramento and Los Angeles) would be the most cost-effective of all.

      But again, I’m glad to see you acknowledge your actual goal – to adjust the community to fit the desires of the school district. Something I’ve long-suspected.

      What an irresponsible goal that is.

  3. Richard_McCann

    David,

    This column hits the problem on the head. Those who live in a fantasy world that Davis will be just fine (even if they are from Woodland or elsewhere with no connections to the community) fail to understand that the all of the amenities that make Davis desirable are dependent on having a young vibrant populace. The higher property values that support the wealth of residents here are dependent on the combination of the proximity of UC Davis and the performance of our school district. And that performance is largely dependent on the investment of parents in their children’s education. Many studies have shown how school quality drives differences in housing values. This aspect explains most of the 85% premium that Davis has over Woodland and West Sacramento. (John Quigley showed in 1990 that Piedmont had a $100,000 per house premium over neighboring Oakland solely for this reason.) The work by the Finance and Budget Committee showing the differences in the marginal costs of city services for Davis versus other similar cities such as Roseville and Folsom are another concern. And that Davis receives less sales tax per capita despite higher incomes than most other cities, especially when we are so dependent on car dealers whose business model will soon change dramatically, is yet another. Anyone who ignores all of these factors, that are largely unique to Davis, is failing to be truly observant and analytic.

    All of this explains why we need to have a community discussion on what’s our vision of the future for Davis. Those who might believe that Davis will be just fine need to engage in a full discussion of why they believe this to be true with supporting evidence for that assertion. And those who have deep concerns about that future need to be prepared with their evidence and to be able to communicate that in an understandable manner.

    1. Ron Oertel

      You’re arguing that having good schools increases home values (which you imply is “good”), while (also) arguing that increasing home values price out families (which you imply is “bad”).

      What exactly is your goal?  Given that your two goals conflict with each other?

      This aspect explains most of the 85% premium that Davis has over Woodland and West Sacramento. (John Quigley showed in 1990 that Piedmont had a $100,000 per house premium over neighboring Oakland solely for this reason.)

      Your figure is incorrect regarding the premium/difference.  This has been pointed out a number of times, but you persist.

      Regardless, Woodland students already go to Davis schools.  As such, any price difference has very little correlation with the respective schools in those cities. I have no doubt that many new buyers are well-aware of this option, and that some others involved in the sales process make sure that they’re aware of it.

      There’s more than 1,000 out-of-district students attending Davis schools.

      In fact, Woodland parents and students experience a “double-benefit”, in that they attend Davis schools without paying for the cost they create.

      Piedmont has recently started “poaching” students from Oakland, for the same reason that Davis is doing it.

  4. Ron Oertel

    In regard to San Francisco (as mentioned in the article), they’re also experiencing significantly-declining enrollment.  And as such, will need fewer teachers and schools in the future.  (Same issue with Oakland.) Honestly, the same issue throughout much of California, as enrollment is expected to continue decline for the state as a whole.

    I’ve previously provided a link to an interactive map, which shows this (e.g., per county). Yolo county is one of the counties that will continue experiencing a decrease in enrollment.

    And as there’s fewer young families in a given locale (and the size of those families continue to decrease), any inconvenience caused by the need to downsize will impact a smaller-and-smaller percentage of the population.  (They do, however, tend to be a “loud” group.)

    Perhaps something to keep in mind, when complaining that Davis doesn’t have “enough” young families.  (Whatever “enough” is determined to be in the first place.)

    In any case, if Davis purposefully pursues young families, it will increase costs, given that the “per student” money that Davis receives from the state is insufficient to cover costs.

    Young families also tend to drive more than any other demographic, demand “sports” fields and other amenities, and desire to live in traditional single-family dwellings with at least a 2-car garage (that are within their budget).  Davis cannot provide the latter, especially in comparison to the surrounding cities.

    Perhaps folks should stop trying to “force” Davis to be what it isn’t (or perhaps more accurately, no longer is). As David is so fond of pointing out, “things change”.

    Though on a related note, Davis was NEVER a major employment center, even when there was a higher percentage of young families.

    UCD is a major employer, and most of the newer employees/families are likely choosing to live in Woodland (e.g., Spring Lake). (Same with any new teachers/staff at DJUSD.)

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