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Monday, August 27, 2007

Measure Q: The School Parcel Tax Funds Vital Programs for All Davis Students

One of the most important items on the November Ballot will be the renewal of the school's parcel tax--Measure Q. The parcel tax funds roughly $16 million dollars over the course of the four years of existence, that accounts for roughly 5 to 10 percent of the district's budget according to Interim Superintendent Richard Whitmore.

According to Gina Daleiden,
“Overall the parcel tax is designed so that it touches every child at every grade level. That’s why we keep referring to the K-12 program measure, because its every child, every school, every grade level.”
I sat down a couple of weeks ago with the Interim Superintendent Richard Whitmore and School Board Member Gina Daleiden to discuss the parcel tax and what it means for the Davis school district. It is important to note that Richard Whitmore was only there to provide factual information, he was not directly advocating for the passage of Measure Q.

As you might imagine, with the parcel tax accounting for a sizable percentage of the budget, the ramifications for the district, were the parcel tax not be renewed would be devastating.

According to Board member Gina Daleiden:
"If we were going to have to cut 16 million dollars over four years out of our budget that would obviously be a huge and very painful change. I think it would lead to the elimination of a lot of the programs that make Davis Schools, Davis Schools."
Davis was among the first districts in fact to pass the parcel tax in the state of California. This was the result of Proposition 13 in 1978, which did two things, first it capped property tax revenues and second it required a two-thirds vote to increase taxes.
"A lot of the districts eliminated things that Davis kept because we have the parcel tax... And so things like the music program and its foreign language offerings, the extensive art offerings, those are made possible by the seventh period in the junior highs and the high school. If you go to [other] schools around the area they don't have seven period's offered, they have six, and so if your student wants to take orchestra and a foreign language or art and a foreign language, those opportunities are more available here. Class size reduction, that takes a lot of funding beyond what's offered around the state, and many districts they've eliminated that."
According to Interim Superintendent Richard Whitmore, without the parcel tax you would see a number of layoffs as the district would have to cut both regular and specialist teachers. We would have larger class sizes across the board and fewer elective offerings in the junior and senior high schools.

The parcel tax will go up during the four year period 34 dollars per year over the parcel tax in the previous four year period.

Superintendent Whitmore explained that because there is not any kind of "auto-inflator" on it, "you have to set the number to be what you think the costs will be over the four year period."

According to Board Member Daleiden the increases are there primarily to cover inflation, however there are two new programs funded as well.
"It mostly is to cover the cost of inflation—programs cost more, people cost more. It mostly covers that. There are two new components that are relatively small percentage-wise out of the parcel tax. One is to increase the offering of fresh fruits and vegetables in the school lunches and the other is for math support for students who need it. And that would be elementary school, 4th through 6th grades for the math support to help kids be ready to take algebra."
For the first time the district is offering waivers to senior citizens who have fixed incomes and would therefore be unduly burden by such a tax increase. Anyone who is 65 or over is eligible and can apply with the district for the exemption.

The cost of the parcel tax on apartments is increasing from $83 per unit to $100 per unit. According to Superintendent Whitmore,
"The tax is paid by the owner of the dwelling. The landlord essentially is writing the check for the taxes. That landlord can choose to pass through the additional costs or not to pass it through."
He explained that it would be the landlord's choice as to whether to pass the money through to renter, however, again it is important to note that we are only talking about a $17 dollar per year per unit increase, any direct effect on rent would be negligible.

There have been a number of concerns about the fiscal responsibility of the school district in recent years. The most glaring example of that perhaps was the $4.5 million lost to the district because an employee missed a filing deadline. The big news last week was that the district won an appeal was able to recoup that $4.5 million based on steps that have been taken to correct some of the problems in the past. This interview happened before that announcement, however we did discuss at length the perception that the district has had poor fiscal practices in the past and how the voters would be ensured that the money spent was going where they said it will go.

Board Member Daleiden explains,
"I think that first you have to separate different types of funding. So I would agree with you that past practices were not the best. And so that’s why we have a new team in the district office. That would include Interim Superintendent Whitmore and our new CBO Bruce Colby. But, this money, the money that goes to the parcel tax always has and will be, has to be spent specifically on what it says in the ballot statement that it will be spent on. So it will be spent on these particular programs."
The district has always been require to layout and account specifically for how the parcel tax is to be used, but in this parcel tax, the district has gone even further to insure that meony is spent properly.
"New this year is the independent citizens’ oversight committee, and so we will be appointing a committee of you know, community members. Could be business people, parents, whomever, who will meet once a year with the Chief Business Official Bruce Colby and go over all of the expenditures and ensure that every penny is going where we say it is going."
According to Superintendent Whitmore,
"I would just emphasize what Gina said, I think some of the issues that have been the most public have been on the facilities side of the budget not the operating side of the budget. And those capital funds are in separate accounts."
The Superintendent then explained the difference between the general fund money which is basically operating expenses and capital fund money which goes for facilities.
"Primarily in the education code, you keep your operating money in general fund in categorical accounts. So you kind of have little buckets of money from which to run the schools on an annual basis. That’s how you fund your teacher salaries, that’s how you fund classroom supplies, that’s how you fund everything that kind of goes on on a daily basis to educate the kids. The capital accounts have to stay separate. And once money is in a capital account, most sources of capital money require you to keep that money separate. So any state funding for buildings goes into a separate fund account and it’s reported separately to the board."
So the money that was lost and now recouped from Montgomery had no impact on the operating budget.
"Some of the issues that have arisen have been about the Montgomery funding from the state, that doesn’t affect operating funds of the district at all."
Moreover, parcel tax money is tracked on a separate line item from the budget, this allows anyone attempting to audit or follow the money easy access.

According to Superintendent Whitmore,
"There are separate line items in the budget for any parcel tax expenditure so we can keep those funds separate from the rest of the funds, track them. It will allow the oversight committee to do its work because we can go in and say here are the parcel tax line items and here’s where we spent the money the prior year. And then the oversight committee can say, yeah that’s what we intended and that’s what the ballot language requires. If for some reason it was spent somewhere else, the oversight committee can then go report to the board and say hey they’re spending parcel tax money on… sports or some other purpose it wasn’t intended, they can direct the district staff to fix it."
The key according to Board Member Daleiden is transparency. "We wanted it to be as transparent as possible. Hence the oversight committee."

Many of the community have criticized the district for having two Superintendents on the payroll. I have always suggested that was a necessary one-time expense given the past problems of the previous administration. That seems to be the thinking on the school board as well.
" I will state generally when you have a large organization like Davis joint unified, approximately, a 70 million dollar organization, the person who heads that organization is important to how effectively and efficiently it operates, so leadership is something that is hard to put a price tag on, and with the right leadership in place, you can save much more than the salary of the person leading the organization. That’s just a general statement, in terms of exit agreements and so forth, that would be one-time money, and not the type of ongoing money that keeps schools running and programs running… "
While Board Member Daleiden cannot officially comment on the "retirement" of previous Superintendent David Murphy, she did make a general statement.
"This is what I’m allowed to say according to the attorney: There was an exit agreement with the former superintendent, the exit agreement reflects the contract that was signed previously, we’re excited to have Interim Superintendent Richard Whitmore, one of the reasons that we decided to hire him, aside from his winning personality, is his background in finance."
One of the reasons both for the exiting of the previous Superintendent and the hiring of Richard Whitmore on an interim basis until November 8, 2007 was his fiscal experience.
"We needed to have confidence that the person heading up the organization had that kind of expertise and would be able to have good oversight over the fiscal side of the district… Bruce Colby, who is doing a great job also has been rebuilding our budget and putting in new accounting practices so that we don’t have mistakes and things that we don’t know about."
The crux of the concern for passing the parcel tax remains the educational needs of each student in the school district. While the parcel tax is designed to meet the needs of each student, it does so differently at each level.

At the K through 3 level, the primary focus is on reading. The state no longer is able to fund the reading program and according to Ms. Daleiden early reading is absolutely essential for a child's school career.
"Everybody knows that the key to success in a child’s school career really starts with being able to read. And their fluency and their vocabulary… In order to make sure every child has the opportunity for success, every child has to be able to read."
She described at length and in detail the "Reading Naturally" program at Birch Lane elementary school. It is a highly individualized program that could not be done in a standard setting of 20 students with class rize reducation let alone 32 students if the district did not have the funding. The students are pulled out of class in small groups of three and four and can move at their own pace. The program covers vocabulary, comprehension, decoding, phonics.
"They also have a story that they’re reading, it’s also on tape, so they listen to the tape and they read through and track with their finger to work on reading fluency, and how you would hear the inflexion, where you stop, etc. Generally for the younger kids, first grade, second grade, they’re listening to the tapes three times usually through and then they are reading with the teacher individually. That kind of focus and repetition depending on what the child needs is entirely different than what they would get just in a fuller setting, you couldn’t do that just in a regular classroom.”
The more schools can individualize the learning, the better off students will be. Class size reduction and specialists help child with individualized needs be able to focus more on the areas of their need.

According to Superintendent Whitmore,
“Every kid has different needs and I think that is what we are trying to address with these extra monies”
At the grades 4 through 6 one of the big focuses is on a new math program that will include math specialist to make sure kids are ready for higher math, algebra by 8th grade according to state regulation.
“To make sure every kid has that opportunity [algebra by 8th grade] you need to catch them early, those 4, 5, 6 when the math gets a bit tougher and a bit more conceptual they need help outside the classroom and they need more small group instruction. That’s what the math specialists that are new editions to the parcel tax will do.”
According to Superintendent Whitmore, at the Junior High School level, the parcel tax aims to support both kids who are on the fast track and those who are in danger of falling behind grade level standards. Money here goes for electives, the seventh period, more hours of library and counseling, at-risk intervention. We see many of the same programs for the high school as well.
“More money at the high school for music, for foreign language, for electives that we would otherwise not be able to fund, but also some opportunities to kids with different learning styles, or different needs.”
Superintendent Whitmore said, “this district probably has one of the best counselor to student ratios in the state.”

While some may complain that Counseling is unnecessary and undoubtedly school counselors have gotten a bad rap over the years, Gina Daleiden made a very powerful case for why a good counseling program is a necessity.
"As we’re talking about closing the achievement gap, to me at least, one of the most important gaps is as kids moves through school and beyond school, we see in this country people who have the opportunity to go to college and those who do not. And without academic counseling particularly for students who don’t come from a background with parents who have gone to college and can help them through that process, or even help them to know not just which classes they need to take, you know A through G requirements to access the university, but the entire process of applying or believing that you can apply and go to this school or that school, they need some support for that and that’s why its important that they have enough counselors that actually meet with all of the students."
The at-risk counselor is funded entirely by this parcel tax. As she points out, at-risk counseling is not only for poor students.
“We have a lot of students who look like they are great, they are straight A students and getting into really good colleges who still are very at risk from a social and emotional standpoint... This is the one resource district wide that we have for all of those students.”
The parcel tax also funds extended library hours at the Junior High and High School level. Extended hours means that the Library is open for students after school and some before school. Gina Daleiden somewhat jokingly suggested, “I kind of think if we wanted to get the high school students, we’d keep it open at night like 9 to 11.” After school hours usually are until about 5 pm. Moreover, libraries provide technology available for students who would not have access at home.

The parcel tax also will fund a new teacher and five new career technical courses.

Superintendent Richard Whitmore tells us this is a major emphasis to ensure a good education for all students regardless of their track.
"Big state focus on career technical programs because I think we need to be sure to give kids multiple pathways to come out of high school. If the kid’s not interested or ready to go to college we want them to be able to enter the workplace with skills that can help them work productively. That’s what career technical education does."
Gina Daleiden adds,
"We have a flourishing agricultural program at the high school thanks to a couple of really enthusiastic teachers. And basically these funds are funding extra FTE... It allows a high school to run these extra courses, it’s not specific to a single course, it just says to that department, here are the FTEs that you have to hire that teacher to offer the courses that kids want to take."
Finally, the parcel tax contains a $20 per student stipend for classroom supplies. "I hope they are spending it on glitter," Board Member Daleiden partially joked.
"It’s not new. This has been in the parcel tax since the beginning to be able to give teachers something very directly. All of this impacts the kids very directly in the classroom, and so supplies is one way. It’s not a lot… So teachers can choose to spend it on art supplies, on manipulatives for their classroom if that’s what they want to get. It could be DVDs, or CDs, or whatever kind of equipment they want to get and that will depend on the teacher."
Board Member Daleiden then summed up why the voters should pass the parcel tax.
“I think everybody in Davis whether or not you have a child ought to be wholly in support of this parcel tax because this is what makes Davis a great place to live in. And this is what sets our community apart.” “In 1983 Davis chose a different path than a lot of school district, and said we the community are willing to give generously so that our students have the best opportunities, and so we can continue to fund very important programs…”
“I think our schools are what make our community and our children, I know it sounds very cliché, but they are our future, and so if you care about that, then you care about this parcel tax.Davis is Davis in part because of the strong schools whether or not you have children that attend or have attended there. vote for this is a vote for the future. In a really corny way, that’s what I mean. I think we have something really special to protect here.”
Regardless of whether or not the parcel tax passes, the state requires the district to fund certain programs. So any cuts would come from those things some might consider extra. Davis schools have remained great in part because of the commitment in the community to continue to fund AP courses, music, art, and other electives or as Ms. Daleiden put it, "those things that keep kids interested and connected to school, those are the things most at risk if this wasn’t to pass."

School Board Member Daleiden encouraged people to examine the parcel tax for themselves. The best source for information is the district office who will provide information only. The district is not campaigning it provides factual information.

For further information please log onto:
“At the end of the day, when everything else is pushed aside from what people are thinking about, this is about the children of this town and their educational opportunities and not about anything else.”
The Vanguard will continue to cover the November election in detail that will not be found elsewhere. The Vanguard will have more information in the coming weeks as we move closer to the November 6, 2007 election which will include also the School Parcel Tax and the School Board elections. The Vanguard is your source for election information.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting