The Vanguard has a new home, please update your bookmarks to

Friday, February 29, 2008

Commentary: Beware of the Growth Boogie Man in the School Budget Debate

In two days, there have been two letters to the editor in the Davis Enterprise that have linked the issue of growth to the issue of the school budget deficit that is projected at $4 million for this year.

On Wednesday, February 27, 2008, Larry Moore of Davis writes:
"The situation with the school budget, the charter school and the growth of Davis are serious issues that should be carefully and continually evaluated as they have been. However, I have not seen mentioned that maybe these issues are related to each other. Not withstanding the state budget, the plight of our schools is related in part to the declining enrollment."
He concludes:
"The plight of the school budget and the no-growth mantra of Davis are related."
Yesterday, a similar letter by John Foraker with a similar vein:
"Are you frustrated that Davis schools' educational programs are soon to be gutted, at least one school closed, while band and other 'non- essential' curriculum are also sacrificed? Me too! But even more frustrating is the inability, or intellectual unwillingness, of many to connect the dots from our recent city track record.

Allow me to help with the basic math: Virtually no new family housing or major developments for five-plus years equals fewer families buying Davis homes equals fewer kids of school age equals less revenue for daily operation of our schools. It is, unfortunately, that simple.

So, next time you stand up to decry a new development, or to sign a petition supporting small-footprint infill development over the kinds of homes more families actually want to buy, remember that your well-intentioned position is not without consequence."
It was only a matter of time before these two issues became intertwined--with the growth boogie man popping its head out to suggest we had better grow or our schools are imperiled.

However before we plunge head long into new developments let us take a brief examination of the problem.

It is interesting that both gentlemen focused on declining enrollment. And indeed with a steeper decline this year of 180 students, that is a concern. But even at 180 students, that only accounts for $1 million of the $4 million deficit. Or 25% of the problem.

$1.5 million are due to the budget cuts, but more concerning is the $1.5 million that is due to fiscal mismanagement under the previous CBO of the district. We will talk more about this problem next week, but the basics are that one-time monies were used to fund ongoing programs. When those monies dried up, the district was left in a budget deficit that ate away at its voluntary (as opposed to state mandate reserves).

The result is two-fold. First it caused a budget deficit that we have to correct for. But just as bad, it eliminated reserves that we could have used this year for a softer landing.

The state fundings cuts also amount to roughly $1.5 million. Experts suspect that Democrats will greatly reduce that number, but even if that $1.5 million is cut to $.5 million, the district will have to cut $3 million this year. So even in the best case scenario, that's a problem.

Declining enrollment is indeed the problem, but even under a rosier economic projection it only amounts to 33% of the deficit. Even if we had no declining enrollment we would be facing $2 to $3 million in cuts.

The second part of the picture is looking at the growth policies. The only substantial development project that was nixed was Covell Village. Are these two letter writers suggesting that declining enrollment is a reason that we should have passed Covell Village?

There are a number of reasons that Covell Village was a poor project. The average cost of a home there would have been between $400,000 and $600,000. It is true that there would have been affordable housing there, but realistically speaking, the majority of the units there would probably not have contributed much to the school district's population and it would have been phased in over 10 years.

Aside from Covell Village, what housing development has been nixed? So to attribute all of the declining enrollment to the failure of Covell Village seems to be a bit extreme.

I don't disagree with the premise that we need more affordable housing for younger families. Along those lines the best way to produce that would be to provide housing for young faculty members to move into the city. A project like say, West Village.

If the city would partner with the university to provide specifically for faculty and student housing, we could increase the amount of housing for particularly young faculty members who were just hired by the university. Those young faculty members are most likely to have young children and would then bring their young children to our district.

What is clear at this point is that they are going to attempt to use the budget deficit with the school as a wedge to demand new development. We need to keep in mind two things. First, that declining enrollment only accounts for a small percentage of the budget deficit. And second, that many of the projects proposed in recent years were not going to bring in a lot of families with children. We need to be smart in the face of adversity and not panic to try to implement simple solutions that do not solve the problem.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting