Vanguard Weekly Council Question: Week 5 – Declining Enrollment

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Davis City Hall with an old style bicycle statue out front

In May, there will be a special election to fill the vacancy in the 3rd District left by the departure of Lucas Frerichs to the County Board of Supervisors.

Filing to compete for that seat are two candidates: Donna Neville and Francesca Wright.  Each week between now and the election, the Vanguard will pose the candidates weekly questions in which they have between 250 and 350 to respond.

Question 5: Recently the school district and council expressed concern over declining enrollment.  Do you consider this a matter of concern for the council and if so, what strategies would you undertake to remedy the problem from the city’s perspective?


Donna Neville

Declining enrollment in DJUSD schools should concern our entire community. When enrollment declines schools receive less state funding while some costs, such as bond debt, remain fixed. To adapt, schools are forced to eliminate programs, lay off teachers, and sometimes close altogether. This has devastating impacts on families and communities.

DJUSD is not alone in feeling the pain of declining enrollment. School districts throughout California have been experiencing declines for years due to declining birth rates and outward migration due to the high cost of living. It would be naïve to suggest that the City/school district can completely reverse these trends, but the City can and must act now to make housing more available and more affordable for low to moderate income families who want to live in Davis and send their children to school here. My view aligns with California’s Fair Housing Goals which promote diversified housing and ensure that low to moderate-income families can live in communities with good schools. As DJUSD Trustee Jackson aptly stated at the recent council meeting, “We have economic segregation in Davis by pricing out lower and middle income people.”

I would promote the following strategies:

  • Urge DJUSD to identify surplus school district property and develop financing  strategies for building housing on those sites that low to moderate income families can afford.
  • Identify a stable revenue source for the Housing Trust Fund and establish clear policies for how the money can be used.
  • Proactively implement the Downtown Plan, which does away with previous barriers that discouraged developers from building denser, more affordable housing.
  • Amend the city zoning code for areas of the City outside the Downtown Plan area to make changes that would incentivize building/reconfiguring moderately-priced housing. Here the city can partner with small-scale developers, such as community development corporations, that have the capacity and resources to do this work.
  • Prioritize building the low, median, and moderate income housing identified in the Housing Element.

Solving this problem isn’t going to be easy, but the tools exist, and with a strong City-DJUSD partnership we can make real progress.


Francesca Wright

Declining student enrollment is not news.  It has been a trending indicator of our changing demographics for years.  Excluding the UC Davis student population, our town is graying and families struggle to find affordable housing.  The news today is that the district has reached the limit of recruiting students from outside of Davis. Without the students, they will be forced to close schools, lay off staff, and reduce the array of enrichment programs that feed the souls of our youth.

Yes, this concerns me greatly.

We need leadership. We have a housing crisis. We must address the supply and demand imbalance for workforce housing. We can do this by getting our municipal house in order and through collaboration.

The city’s planning and building departments are severely understaffed.  Their mission builds our tax base, our housing stock, is a core responsibility of our city.  I see much room for improvement.

  • We need to staff up and work smart in our “Community Development and Sustainability Department” which many of us know as our planning and building department.
  • Let’s consider fees for expedited permit processing, which can cover the cost of additional staff.
  • Let’s work smarter. Other jurisdictions are using automated permit processes for solar and other select applications.
  • Let’s assess the number of vacant houses in Davis being held as investments for future profit, not current occupancy.  We can consider a residential vacant property tax to incentivize full usage of our housing stock and new revenue for our housing fund.
  • Let’s support our new Department of Social Services and Housing to pursue state and federal grants for first time homebuyers and to manage our affordable housing stock,

Let’s work with the school district to define and address the problem.

  • They can be an effective partner in encouraging UC Davis to accelerate their development of on-campus student, staff and faculty housing.
  • Let’s work with the school district as it considers building staff housing on district owned land.
  • The city and school district have substantial facilities that are increasingly costly to maintain.  Let’s be in communication to ensure our public resources are well utilized and within our long-term budgets.  Before we build any more public buildings, let’s make sure that we are not thinking in silos, but rather as partners.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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21 Comments

  1. Ron Oertel

    It’s unfortunate that both of these candidates believe that it’s the city’s responsibility to “adjust” to the needs of an oversized school district, rather than the other-way around.

    But hey, at least their views match those already on the council, as well.  They’ll fit right in.

    don’t know why only a certain “type” of candidate generally pursues a seat on the council in the first place. (There’s your lack of ACTUAL “diversity”.)

    Left unstated is the fact that the existing DJUSD parcel taxes will go farther, when it’s spread among fewer students. As such, any claims that programs would need to be cut aren’t supported by the facts.

    And for that matter (depending upon “which” school might be closed), there could be less need for “Mace Mess” type of “solutions”, if this was acknowledged. Or, unfunded libraries – which otherwise wouldn’t be needed.

    As David might say, some people are “fearful of change”.

    1. David Greenwald

      You keep missing the critical point here – size doesn’t matter. Increasing or decreasing enrollment is what matters. By focusing on “oversized” school district, you continue to demonstrate that you simply don’t under understand the issue.

      1. Ron Oertel

        Again, if it’s running a deficit to keep unneeded schools open, size absolutely does matter.

        This isn’t a matter of purposefully seeking to disenroll students. It’s a matter of adjusting the size (e.g., number of schools/staff) to match the needs of the community.

        Your underlying assumption is that the school district is a “given/fixed size”, and that it’s the city’s job to fill it. This point of view is so outrageous that I can’t believe anyone would buy into it – let alone any city official.

        If you don’t understand that, then you’re the one who doesn’t understand the issue.

        And you can’t rely on the school district itself to provide objective analyses, as they have an inherent conflict of interest in doing so. This is also the same reason that you don’t ask a given community if “their” prison or military base should be shut down, and base decisions on that.

        1. Ron Oertel

          I understand it, including any claims of cost/student in a declining-enrollment district.

          Costs will drop drastically (in total), as fewer students and fewer schools are needed. Even if there’s a slight rise in cost/student. The cost won’t drop until unneeded school(s) are closed.

          That is, unless you think it costs $100 million to educate “one” student, as an extreme example. And that the entire system needs to remain the same size, to educate that one student.

          And the parcel taxes will go farther, spread among fewer students.

      2. Keith Olsen

        By focusing on “oversized” school district, you continue to demonstrate that you simply don’t under understand the issue.

        Or is it you that doesn’t understand the issue?  Why keep pouring money into something that far exceeds what is actually needed.  It happens all the time were businesses have to downsize to fit a dwindling customer base.  Same go for the school district.  Right now it’s depending on out of town students to keep it sustainable when I feel it should downsize to fit the actual demographics of Davis.

        1. David Greenwald

          There are two basic problems with that. One is that most of the out of town students are actually just students whose parents work at DJUSD or UCD.

          But the second is that even if you shrank the size of the school district, you would still have declining enrollment and so the problem remains regardless. The problem is the fact that year over year fewer students will enroll, not whether the baseline is 9000 or 7000 students.

        2. Ron Oertel

          There are two basic problems with that. One is that most of the out of town students are actually just students whose parents work at DJUSD or UCD.

          If the school district was “right-sized” to match the needs of the community, there would be less need for DJUSD workers who live out-of-district in the first place.  And their kids would then attend schools in their own districts.

          Though I don’t think anyone is talking about totally-eliminating out-of-district enrollments.

          But the second is that even if you shrank the size of the school district, you would still have declining enrollment and so the problem remains regardless. The problem is the fact that year over year fewer students will enroll, not whether the baseline is 9000 or 7000 students.

          This is not a “problem”, though there will be some “contracting pains” for a relatively small number of people.  There will be “tipping points” at which a school (or schools) will need to be closed.

          Eventually, there will come a point at which enrollments would likely stabilize.  In fact, that would occur even if more sprawl is pursued.

          Though I suppose that if sprawl was pursued “indefinitely”, the school district’s “problem” might be “solved” – at least until Davis starts bumping-up against the causeway, Woodland, etc.

          My guess is that the school district will be forced to contract over the next few years/decades (probably at a lower level than anyone even envisions, right now).

          But there will be some “kicking and screaming” along the way, and some desperate attempts to stave this off.

        3. Keith Olsen

          The problem is the fact that year over year fewer students will enroll, not whether the baseline is 9000 or 7000 students.

          Why are fewer students enrolling a problem?  Why does Davis need to feed the beast, so to speak?  The current system is oversized so must Davis keep bringing in students to fill it?  Maybe the better answer is the system should downsize to the actual numbers.

          1. David Greenwald

            Because you end up losing the ADA money every year over a long period of time, which means you are constantly having the cut teachers, programs, etc, reverse economies of scale issues and more.

          2. David Greenwald

            Suppose you lose an average of ten students a year – that’s about $100,000 or so in ADA money. That means you have to cut costs, let’s say that 1.5 FTE in teachers. But the average class size is let’s say, 20 students (it’s probably slightly higher). That means that cutting half a class of students results in the need to lose 1.5 FTE. Obviously the result of that is going to be higher class size, programs cut, etc. At some point you can probably close a school to recoup some of that money, but if you are constantly facing declining enrollment you are constantly chasing that money. It results in fewer programs, less support staff, and higher class size and begins quickly to impact the quality of the education program.

            It’s not the absolute size that matters here, it is the change year over year that impacts the ongoing budget. The best situation is stable enrollment.

        4. Ron Oertel

          Because you end up losing the ADA money every year over a long period of time, which means you are constantly having the cut teachers, programs, etc, reverse economies of scale issues and more.

          Again, not a problem (and not accurate regarding “programs”, to boot).

          The cost savings will occur in lump-sums, when school(s) are shut down.  It obviously won’t (exactly) correspond with decline in enrollment. Whomever told you to present that as an “argument” is grasping at straws.

          And the parcel tax (e.g., for programs and teacher salaries) will go farther, for fewer students/teachers. In other words, the remaining students and teachers will enjoy more available money (per “capita”) from parcel taxes, as enrollment declines.

        5. Ron Oertel

          At some point you can probably close a school to recoup some of that money,

          By “some”, no doubt you’re referring to “and then some”.  Keeping an unneeded school open requires a lot more than teachers.

          Not to mention the “profit” received from selling-off a site, which I believe can be used at remaining facilities. (Which, no doubt would then be used to address the so-called “housing shortage”.) Another “win-win”, as it were.

          And at some point, the district itself might need less administrative personnel, as well. Or at least, not continuing to provide raises for personnel overseeing an increasingly smaller district.

          And if gets small enough (e.g., in future decades) – it might even need to consolidate with other nearby districts.  (Though I suspect this is unlikely anytime soon.)

          Bottom line is that “quantity” does not equal “quality”, except in the eyes of school district personnel who don’t want to lose their jobs. And a few parents, who would scream at the top of their lungs if they had to transport their kids to another school (for a short period of time).

          I wish I could have sat-in at the initial meeting(s), in which it was decided that schools were (uniquely) on a mission from God. As a product (consumer?) of that system, I can tell you that God was nowhere to be found.

          1. David Greenwald

            The district’s finance people have estimated (as I have reported previously) that the district can reasonably save about 60 cents on the dollar.

            The profit from selling a school property can be used for facilities, not classroom money per state law.

            Moreover, if the average decline is about ten students a year, that’s roughly $100,000 in lost money. Every so often you might be able to cut back on support staff and such, but generally speaking you are going to have similar administrative costs for 9000 students as opposed to 8990. And yes, you can close a school, but if you are only losing 10 a year, and schools hold roughly 600 students, you can close one school every 60 years, but each year you are still dripping away $100,000, 1.5 FTE. Given fixed costs, the vast majority of what you are going to lose is teachers. There is a reason why declining enrollment is a huge problem for school districts.

        6. Ron Oertel

          The district’s finance people have estimated (as I have reported previously) that the district can reasonably save about 60 cents on the dollar.

          As already noted, the “district’s finance people” have an inherent conflict of interest. 

          No one should be relying upon a self-interested school district to objectively calculate the cost savings that would result from downsizing their own employer (e.g., closing down unneeded schools). This is a fundamental concept that should also be taught to students, themselves.

          The profit from selling a school property can be used for facilities, not classroom money per state law.

          Already noted.  Are you stating that there is no need for repairs/improvements at remaining facilities?

          Moreover, if the average decline is about ten students a year, that’s roughly $100,000 in lost money. Every so often you might be able to cut back on support staff and such, but generally speaking you are going to have similar administrative costs for 9000 students as opposed to 8990.

          Again, there’s a tipping point at which school(s) would be closed.  At which point there’d be a massive cost savings (not simply attributed to the prior ten-student decline).

          And yes, you can close a school, but if you are only losing 10 a year, and schools hold roughly 600 students, you can close one school every 60 years, but each year you are still dripping away $100,000, 1.5 FTE.

          Who said anything about closing one every “60 years”?  It’s likely going to occur WAY before then.  If you’d like, maybe I’ll volunteer to select one.

          And again, teacher FTEs are only one of the costs associated with keeping unneeded schools open.

          Given fixed costs, the vast majority of what you are going to lose is teachers.

          Ultimately, there is no such thing as “fixed costs”.  Costs are ultimately variable, when tipping points are reached (or decided).

          There is a reason why declining enrollment is a huge problem for school districts

          Yeah, and that reason is reluctance from those who would lose their jobs.  A very powerful motivator, indeed.  Along with parents who would be forced to send their kids to a slightly-farther school, for the extremely limited amount of time that their kids are in a given school in the first place.

          This entire issue is fraught with outright corruption.  The only reason that anyone even listens to it at all is due to the fake “it’s for the kids” claim.

        7. Ron Oertel

          As already noted, the “district’s finance people” have an inherent conflict of interest.

          So really, one would need to examine all assumptions that are made in regard to any estimate of savings resulting from closing down school(s), selling off sites, possible reconfiguration of administration, etc.  This type of analysis is not something that lends itself to a blog, and would involve costs that may be considered both “variable” and “fixed”, depending upon the assumptions made.

          Again, as an extreme example, would “fixed costs” be the same if the district only had one student? Would the district still have the same amount and cost of schools, teachers, administrators, etc. – as it would for 10,000 students? (In this example, we do know that the remaining student and remaining teacher(s) would have an enormous amount of parcel tax funding at their disposal – since parcel tax collection is unaffected by enrollment.) That kid would be able to attend school “eight days a week” to paraphrase The Beatles.

          And since parcel taxes are unaffected by enrollment, those funds would not even be impacted.  Though they would be spread among fewer students and teachers, benefiting those remaining.

  2. Don Gibson

    As a parent of a young child, who tried to buy a home and move to Davis last year I feel I can a bit of perspective.

    Today in Davis the median 3bed 2bath is listed for sale about $750,000. A 30 year fixed standard mortgage today, with 20% down, at 6.7% interest will have a monthly payment of ~$4,700 including city taxes, fees and insurance. Add on the rough going rate of $2,000 a month for infant day care. A household would need roughy $125,000 annual income to cover those two expenses. Factoring in other costs like retirement, food, living expenses, a household income of $200,000 (take home ~$10,000/month) is like the minimum to afford buying a low end 3bed 2 bath place in Davis today. Even with that income level families risk being house poor. As a 30-ish millennial with a kid is a scary prospect after living through the Great Recession.

    1. Ron Oertel

      That’s a primary reason that young people are having fewer kids, these days.  Of course, that $750K price is not out-of-line even in places like Woodland – even as housing prices are dropping throughout the region.

      And particularly in Davis, you’re competing with folks who don’t have a problem with those prices (including folks from the Bay Area).

      From my perspective, having fewer kids is a good thing (and is ultimately a “choice” for most people, at least). Actually, it’s a “choice” that everyone makes, though some don’t think of that in regard to the action which creates them.

  3. Don Shor

    I’m glad to hear that both candidates recognize the value of stability in the school district’s enrollment and finances and want to work with the district as partners in addressing this. There are some useful proposals here. The problem is that they aren’t likely to lead to much of a net increase in student population.

    I am curious how much surplus property DJUSD has, and where it is located. More to the point, I’d suggest that if a Request for Proposals were put out for submissions, you’d find very few builders willing to pursue it.

    Downtown redevelopment, in my opinion, isn’t likely to lead to family-friendly housing. Even if it’s ‘affordable’ somehow, it’s going to be occupied by students and young adults.

    Setting the goal of lower-cost housing as a priority isn’t going to get it done. The Housing Element didn’t address the lack of willing property owners and other impediments to infill development.

    I am told the building department is understaffed, as are several other key departments. The council may wish to evaluate why Davis has so much difficulty attracting and retaining workers. Hint: cost of housing is a big factor, I’d guess, but so is trying to navigate the overwhelming amount of citizen input on every conceivable topic. I’d suggest council members consider debriefing some former employees as to why they left.

    I don’t see how extra fees and taxes will get more housing built. Grants are a great idea, but I believe that they would require shovel-ready sites that already have at least rudimentary infrastructure. But I could be wrong about that.

    Generally speaking, I don’t think cities or school districts are good at developing housing; certainly, it isn’t their core mission in either case. It’s probably better to leave building to the professionals. Just set the parameters and let them figure out how to build what’s needed at a ROI that allows private financing.

    Think about this more carefully, please. If you want folks with school-age kids to move to Davis, even at a premium for renting or buying here, what kinds of housing do you think they want? When you were a parent, did you want to live in high-density housing? Downtown? Where in the existing city limits do you see actual realistic sites for significant amounts of housing?

    If you don’t see those sites, and consider this a pressing need, then on what basis would either candidate support peripheral annexation for a new housing development?

    Note: I do not live or vote in District 3 but am a business and property owner in the district and my kids attended school here K – 12.

    1. Ron Oertel

      If you don’t see those sites, and consider this a pressing need, then on what basis would either candidate support peripheral annexation for a new housing development?

      I actually think this is a more “honest” implication regarding what some advocate for.

      “Sprawl for Schools”

      With houses that cost at least $1 million, for a traditional single family dwelling (with yard, 2-3 car garage, 2,500 square feet, etc.).

      Or, they can buy the same thing in Woodland (or Dixon, or West Sacramento), for maybe 65% of that price.

      Which do you think they’ll choose?

      And do you think that the $1 million dollar house that you’re suggesting would attract the same type of population as The Cannery? Which was a complete “bust” for the head-hunting school system?

      Personally, I think the best question of all is: Do you believe that it’s the city’s responsibility to fill the oversized school district by approving more sprawl? Or, do you think that it’s the school system’s responsibility to adjust to match the needs of a community?

      1. Don Shor

        There are many people who are willing to pay a premium in rent or mortgage payments to live in Davis. One of their primary reasons for doing so is the quality of the schools. I know people who would have done so but couldn’t due to a simple lack of inventory of the types of houses and lot sizes they wanted.
        The Cannery was not well designed for families. I hope the current council(s) learn from that mistake. There are some families there, but it is really primarily the types of homes that retirees want. Not people with kids.

        We know where you stand on this, Ron. Perhaps you can let other people comment without feeling the need to reply every time.

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