By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – For years now the Vanguard has been warning about the impending problem of declining enrollment and the impact it will have on the school district and the broader community. This week, the Davis City Council received a report from DJUSD and the two entities vowed to work together.
As I have noted a number of times, declining enrollment presents unique challenges to school districts because funding is calculated by average daily attendance.
As Board Member Joe DiNunzio explained last week, 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.”
If this were merely a one-time decline in enrollment, that would be one matter. The school district could close a school, cut staff, bite the bullet once and be okay.
But the problem here is a long-term downward trend that means that the district would have to be cutting most of the time. And as I have previously pointed out, that’s difficult to do and because of reverse economies of scale, the district would become less efficient and would only save about 60 cents on the dollar for each cut.
The resident student population has been declining for some time, but the total enrollment had been relatively stable pre-pandemic. That changed in the 2020-21 school year.
Superintendent Matt Best explained, “We know that our resident student numbers are declining and that’s masked by increasing non-resident students.”
But he later noted, “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.”
But as 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.”
Some have suggested why not just eliminate the out-of-district transfers, downsize the schools and be done with it.
Leaving aside the fact that that would not solve the ongoing problem of decline, it’s not so simple.
That’s because of who the transfer students are—in primarily three categories. First, they are children of staff and faculty at DJUSD. Many of them can’t afford to live in Davis, but allowing them to enroll their children in the district is a huge draw for staff.
Second, they are the children of faculty at UC Davis. And third, they are students who started out living in Davis, whose families moved, but are entitled to remain at DJUSD.
So, what is causing all of this?
First, a reduction of births. The average births declined from about 603 to 417 between 2002 and 2021. A big part of that is the aging population of Davis because younger families cannot afford to move to this community.
And a big part of that is—you guessed it—housing.
The period of 2002 to 2021 happens to coincide with major changes in the housing market in Davis and the advent of the housing crisis. It is probably not coincidental that the decline began shortly after the passage of Measure J.
The presentation noted that there have been 902 city approved residential units planned within the next 5 years. But 81 percent are multi-family housing that do not house school age children.
Board Member Hiram Jackson explained that he asked the demographer whether “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.”
I guess the question then is this: does a decline in schools matter to this community?
Ultimately that is a question that the community is going to have to answer. But, overall, I think it does matter.
First of all, we have seen, since 2007, the community step up time and time again, willing to pay increasing amounts of a parcel tax to support quality education at DJUSD.
Second, as noted by Will Arnold, home values are primarily tied to the quality of the educational system.
Third, and I think this is a point that a lot of people are missing, there is the connection between UC Davis and the community. As UC Davis brings in young faculty each year, those are people of child-bearing age who are going to have children and want their children to receive a high quality of education.
Traditionally, faculty moved into Davis and helped populate our local schools. Fewer and fewer faculty are able to afford to live in Davis, particularly early in their career when they have school age children, but the district has compensated for that through transfers.
However, if funding declines, the quality of education will decline at the schools, and it might become more difficult to attract top young faculty to UC Davis.
Fourth, I think overall this community is more vibrant when we have families of all ages in addition to students, faculty, and long-time residents—and if our schools decline, our population of children declines, and we lose a lot of what makes this a great community.
If we plan well, we can do this in a way so that we keep the great things about this community, without growing too fast so as to see a loss of other facets that make this a great community—small town feel, open space, agricultural heritage.
This will all take a lot of smart planning and a lot of work.
But I fully agree that we are at a dangerous tipping point here. And if we don’t act now, we will lose a lot about what makes this a great community.