By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – DJUSD Superintendent Matt Best delivered a message that many have been warning about for the past decade—the cost of housing in Davis has led to a decline in resident enrollment which, while bolstered by non-resident transfers, presents warning signs.
The bottom line, Best said, “We know that our resident student numbers are declining and that’s masked by increasing non-resident students.”
As board member Joe DiNunzio put it, “We’re nearing a tipping point.” He said, “I think we are coming very close to the ceiling on the number of non-resident students we have. And if those numbers do in fact fall, then it’s going to have a huge impact on our ability to maintain the school system that we currently have.”
For their part, the council heard the message loud and clear. How much they can do at this point remains to be seen.
During the Superintendent’s presentation, he presented the mobility chart and whether families are moving in or out of the district—and where.
As he explained, “Green means that there are more students entering the district between that grade in that area, and the red means folks are leaving.”
As he noted, “20 years ago, this chart had a lot more green on it, which meant that more students were entering our district from grade level to grade level, in these catchment areas, whereas in, in this particular year, you’re seeing more red.”
He added, “We were sort of trending down pre-pandemic, and you can definitely see the post-pandemic effects there.”
Superintendent Best noted that because of AB 130, there will now be 14 years rather than just K-12.
As he pointed out, “By 2027, all students who are four years old will be eligible for transitional kindergarten. So we’ve essentially got fewer students spread across more grades, which for any economists in the room, means lower efficiency.”
He explained that the pandemic drop has been “essentially masked by the addition of transitional kindergarten.”
But he warned that “we’re still a hundred students fewer than we were just a few years ago.”
The overall decline is also masked “to a large extent by the increasing number of non-resident students joining our district. It wasn’t until the pandemic that the number of non-residents students stopped keeping up with the number of the decline of resident students.”
Superintendent Best noted that, in addition to the resident population, the non-resident student population which currently is keeping programs open and vibrant has “fewer students in the region, that means that at some point, that non-resident student population is going to either plateau, level off, decrease in its percentage year over year.”
He said that “we are intensely concerned about when that’s going to happen at some point in the future.”
Joe DiNunzio explained that “enrollment is so important because our budget is tied to ADA—the number of average daily attendance of our students.”
As he explained, when the enrollment is declining, “it’s a real challenge” as money declines. He explained that “we are operating right now with a relatively thin margin of budget. So it becomes an extraordinarily big economic challenge.”
DiNunzio emphasized “we collectively have a shared interest.” He said, “I believe from a value standpoint, the school district and the city are tightly aligned.” He said, “We recognize that development and a lot of the political and economic challenges of it are part of the fabric of our community.”
Hiram Jackson, who is a new member of the school board, noted that the demographer was asked “did lower cost housing tend to bring more school going families than more expensive housing? And of course, his answer was yes, that was his experience.”
Jackson said, “I’m concerned that we’re bringing about an economic segregation in Davis. Basically, we’re pricing out lower income people or middle income people even.”
Jackson defended the current out-of-district transfer policy.
He pointed out, “I think we attract some staff and teachers in our district because when they can work here and enroll their kids in the district, then it’s attractive to work in the district.”
Vice Mayor Josh Chapman, responding to the report, noted that he and Mayor Arnold were on the two-by-two when this was originally presented.
He said, “I think my first reaction when I saw a very similar presentation in ours, I think yours as well, was we got to have the school district come and present this to the city council, and then in effect, put this out more publicly into our community to ring the bell around housing in, in our community.”
Mayor Arnold pointed out, “irrespective of student enrollment, we’ve known that for a long time, fewer and fewer teachers are able to live in town. And that’s a big, big loss for our community. And so reversing that on its own, our time will not have been wasted, if we can address that.”
Mayor Arnold also pointed to impacts that maybe we didn’t anticipate at the time.
For instance, he noted that in 2005, “we voted down Covell Village.” But he argued, “we built Covell Village. We just built it five miles up the road and call it North, North Davis—jokingly in Woodland.”
He said that in that campaign, the boogeyman was traffic on Pole Line and Covell.
“Well guess what? Now there’s a lot of traffic on Pole Line and Covell, because zero percent of the people that live in North North Davis are riding their bikes to school or to work or to the grocery store, or any other destination in Davis.”
He said, “So there are consequences to the development decisions we make over the years that are, that are, even the arguments against some of these things come back in our face sometimes.”
There was a joint sense that DJUSD was “a core community asset.”
Will Arnold explained, “As goes the school district—so goes our home values.”
He also answered some commenters on the Vanguard, noting that some on the Vanguard have suggested that “maybe the school district just needs to right size.”
He said, “My response to that would be, well, I hope folks are ready to right size their home values too.”
He said that “the reason that that homes go for one and a half to two times per square foot in Davis as any other neighboring community is not because we have beachfront property, it’s because of the schools.”
The mayor added “this is in my mind, the beginning of a, of a beautiful friendship that we can work together and really hammer this home to our community, how absolutely critical and central it is that we provide the space, for folks who want to live here and teach here, folks who want to live here and, and go to school here.
City Manager Mike Webb added that the district and city “have the tools and the resources and the knowledge, I think to back into some of those numbers that you were talking about and have a real data driven approach to identify what are the numerical needs in terms of housing units based on the type of housing that we see that the school district sees enrollment from historically in town.”
Where that leads the community will depend on a lot of factors that the city will have to come back to in the near future.