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Thursday, March 15, 2007

Judgement Day for Valley Oak?

Tonight it is possible that the community might know what the Davis Joint Unified Board has in store for Valley Oak Elementary School. It's also possible that when the night is finished we will not know anything more than we know already.

At this point we know there will be three "presentations." First, the school board will have an opportunity one last time to question the task force about their report. This became necessary not just out of time constraints at the meeting two weeks ago, but also and perhaps more importantly because the board only received the report hours before the meeting. Next, the Davis OPEN group will present their counter-presentation and make their best case to keep Valley Oak open. Finally, there will be a presentation by school district staff members about implementation scenarios and possible action.

There are a number of concerns that we have about the report. We have covered some of ours in past blog entries. There are three main substantive criticisms. We have already spent considerable time and energy discussing two of those criticisms--the assumption about small school being non-viable and the use of a one-mile measure as an indicator of the effects on transportation closing Valley would have.

There is a third key criticism that we have not covered nearly enough and those are questions about the overall projections that purport to demonstrate that enrollment is actually declining. In December, it was reported that enrollment projections were "stable."

On December 7, 2006 Jeff Hudson of the Davis Enterprise reported:

That's the word demographics expert Scott Torlucci used, again and again, Wednesday to characterize a new batch of enrollment projections for the Davis school district, extending through 2016.

"Stability is the name of the game in all our projections (for the Davis school district)," Torlucci told the Best Uses of Schools Advisory Task Force, at an evening meeting that drew about two dozen interested parents, mostly from the neighborhood around Valley Oak Elementary School.
Hudson goes on to write:
Weber's projections showed enrollment dropping from 8,606 students this year to 8,218 students in 2007, then to 7,846 students in 2011, and bottoming out at 7,763 students in 2015. A loss of that many students would have far-reaching implications for the school district's finances, since schools rely on funding from the state based on the number of students enrolled.

Back in June, based partly on Weber's projections, the Best Uses of Schools Advisory Task Force reached a preliminary recommendation to close Valley Oak Elementary. That prompted considerable concern among neighborhood residents.

But this new batch of projections from Davis Demographics presents a less gloomy picture. Torlucci outlined a scenario in which enrollment will dip a bit over the next few years, bottoming out at 8,426 students in 2010. But it would start to go up again, reaching 8,603 students in 2014 — a figure that would be a virtual tie with this year's number of 8,606.
However, by January 5, 2007 there was a different word: "declining enrollment"
The new projections — containing small refinements and changes from a draft report presented to the Best Uses of Schools Advisory Task Force by Davis Demographics in December — show the district's enrollment heading downward slightly over the decade ahead, from an enrollment of 8,606 students in 2006, to an enrollment of 8,215 students in 2016.

Elementary school enrollment, which has been the particular focus of the task force, is projected to decline from 4,378 in 2006 to 4,143 in 2016.
I am not going to make the argument that one of these numbers are right or one of them are wrong. I simply do not know. What I will highlight is a key phrase in the second article: "small refinements." Small refinements in the way that the projections are performed lead to vastly different outcomes. So how much confidence can we have in projection numbers that are at best fragile and susceptible to very small changes in key assumptions. Most experts agree that outside of a five year period, they become increasingly unreliable. And yet we are going to close a school based on them?

Moreover, while the Task Force has pushed for an immediate decision, it is not all that clear that there is an emergency situation. Enrollment actually increased last year unexpectedly. De facto, the Task Force claims that their metric predicted that increase, but after the fact, that is highly suspect. The district is also not in financial dire straits at this time, so there is no logical reason that they could not wait until the fall to make a more informed decision based on actual fall enrollment numbers.

There are other factors that have complicated matters including the professed desire by some of the school board members in the past to delay a decision until next year anyone just out of logistical concerns if nothing else.

In addition, this will be the first meeting for the new superintendent, Richard Whitmore. The board may be reluctant to make a decision before the new superintendent has had a full opportunity to get up to speed on this issue. Given that this is not an emergency situation, it makes full sense for the board to delay its decision until Mr. Whitmore has had a chance to full deliberate and weigh in on the situation.

The suggestion has been made by some in this community that the Task Force's report speaks for itself. However, a thorough examination of three key findings, puts that into question. As we discussed in this entry, the projection numbers are based on key assumptions and small changes in those assumptions drastically alter the projections. If that is the case, how much confidence can we actually have in those projections? Should the Task Force have presented an array of possible projection scenarios and allowed the school board to decide between them? This has been a criticism in other areas as well including the assumption that there needs to be a 420 student minimum per elementary school and the assumption that a one mile distance from school was the key distance rather a half-mile distance.

In the end, one must question this report because it presented a very narrow array of options and a very narrow picture of what the effects of closing the school would.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting