By David M. Greenwald
Davis, CA – The school district is seeking to renew its parcel tax and perhaps this time it has an uphill fight. It’s hard to judge this early.
Truth be told, I thought they were in trouble back in 2020 but they managed to squeak it out with the help of a surge in the late ballots.
This time might be harder even though it’s a straight renewal.
But the district has far bigger problems up ahead than the parcel tax—even if the parcel tax passes.
There are three reasons why I think the parcel tax could have a much tougher road to hoe this time.
The first is demographics. Previous polling has consistently shown that support for the parcel tax declines with age and as people’s children age out of the schools. There has been a huge demographic shift in recent years away from families and toward seniors and retired people.
The second, we’ll call it tax fatigue. A lot of people I’m talking to have come to the conclusion that they have shelled out too much in the way of taxes, and schools (again a lower priority with more and more not having kids in schools) seem to lead the way.
Finally there is politics. I think this can be summed up neatly in a recent letter from former Councilmember Michael Harrington— “developers try to blow open our borders with junk sprawl neighborhoods” and “the schools are used by them as reasons to vote for the new projects.”
There is a lot of misinformation going around that’s not particularly helpful.
In the same letter from Harrington, as I noted a few weeks ago, he argued, “The policy I strong disagree with is the one where they invite in hundreds and hundreds of out-of-town families to fill up our school buildings so the DJUSD doesn’t have to make hard choices to close a school (or two), and lower our taxes.”
I’ve attempted to explain many times over the years why this formulation is completely wrong. But it is time for the school district to take the lead and show in clear and unambiguous numbers why closing a school will not stop the problem.
And that is the big problem that we now face here. It all stems from the same place.
On the one end, the voters are less likely to support parcel taxes because fewer and fewer have children in school.
On the other end, there are fewer and fewer children in school which is putting pressure on the school district financially in ways that go well beyond simple parcel taxes.
The two seem related, but in fact they are not. The main reason we have the parcel tax has more to do with how California funds schools and the fact that under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF), Davis, with its relatively low number of Title 1 students, is somewhat disadvantaged.
The district has then made up the difference and funded critical programs through the parcel tax—programs that would be jeopardized if the voters were to strike down the parcel tax.
But in another sense, the parcel tax is the least of the district problem. The bigger threat—long term—is declining enrollment.
And no, you can’t fix declining enrollment by closing schools and ending out-of-district transfers.
Because even if you could do so legally or over time, you’re going to have a shrinking number of students. We’re not talking about a rapid decline, but enough to lose ADA dollars more quickly than the district can cut teachers and other costs.
This is in fact all about our housing policies.
Judy Ennis noted the impact on our schools: “We’re known as being a small town that’s great for families, great schools, and that is true. I’m a very proud DJUSD parent. But we do have declining enrollment.”
Some of that she acknowledged is statewide: “There is statewide declining enrollment for other reasons that are not related to housing costs and more about birth rate. But even so, for the children that are being born right now that we want to have in our school for the next five years, we have more students that we are bringing in from other districts because families can’t afford to live in Davis anymore. New families can’t afford to come in to Davis.”
She said, “This is a reality that we’re looking at, has an impact on our schools, has an impact in terms of our commutes has an impact on our students. This is our community.”
And this is the problem that is driving both the parcel tax problem and the declining enrollment problem. The problem that we have is that we need to build housing that parents, that young teachers, that families can afford to move into or we are going to end up with a community that looks very different from the one that we have grown accustomed to and many of us moved here to enjoy.
It’s not going to happen overnight. This is a long, slow, long-term decline. But it’s a real problem and the school district is going to have to take the lead on this. It’s easy to cheer on the parcel tax. Much harder to create long-term structural change.