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Friday, March 21, 2008

Board Consensus is to Keep Emerson Open

For a group of school board members that were trying to avoid making a decision at midnight, it seems that they did exactly that.

The Davis Joint Unified School Board met last night with a large group of parents and students from both the Emerson Junior High and the Montessori school in attendance. That group considerably thinned out by the time the board reached a consensus.

No final decision was made last night and there was an announced special meeting after spring break at Emerson Junior High itself where parents and students will be able to weigh in.

Last night, a joint team of staff presented the school board with seven different options. The bleakness of the situation was fully laid out by CBO Bruce Colby in terms of the need to cut money, when additional money might become available, and the prospects for future budgets.

Janet Berry and Alan Anderson of the Davis Schools Foundation gave us the good news that they have now raised over $100,000. For those who caught the Vanguard radio show this week, Alan Anderson was one of our guests. You may listen to that radio show by scrolling down the right sidebar and clicking on Wednesday's date.

During the first portion of public comments, students and parents urged the board to save the Montessori program. During the second , portion of public comments, students and parents urged the board to keep Emerson open.

By the end of the evening, it seemed that keeping Emerson open was indeed a distinct possibility. The board consensus favored plan G, precisely because it keep Emerson Junior High open. However, it does create pretty much a crazy configuration, in that one cannot quite figure out exactly how it saves money.

Basically, it takes 9th graders and moves them to high schools. There were expressed concerns about that move and there are a number of advantages to having only a 10th through 12th grade high school. But it is probably better than some of the alternatives given the budget situation.

It then moves Da Vinci high to the Emerson campus--and the Da Vinci program becomes a 9th grade through 12th grade high school. With this selection, all three junior high schools become 7th through 8th grade schools.

The enrollment breakdown is 2,342 for Davis High, 430 for Da Vinci, 500 for Harper, 449 for Holmes, and 346 for Emerson. In otherwords, three very small junior highs.

What I do not understand, is how this exactly saves money. They argue that it saves $120,000 in a site administrator, however, there are moving costs and the costs of a science portable for Da Vinci.

Savings may occur with the economy of scale at the high school program. Having 9th through 12th grade may increase the number of fully loaded course options, it may improve the availability of electives, and it may allow some of the low-enrolled classes to remain sustainable.

The biggest savings may be that according to staff, 9th through 12th grade students are required to have roughly 83 additional instructional minutes per day than 7th through 8th grade students. Because the Junior Highs are 7th through 9th, 7th and 8th grade students receive the same instruction as 9th graders are required to receive. That is of course an academic advantage to have an additional course offering, but eliminating this by having 9th through 12th grade students together presents a way to save money.

There are also big disadvantages. Da Vinci is required now to quickly recruit 9th graders, they no longer can enroll in DHS classes concurrently, they need to lease an additional 100 computers, and they have to maintain current levels of enrollment despite location and staffing changes.

Emerson now effectively becomes a 7th through 12th grade school which may invite problems.

The junior high schools are dangerously small. They are well under capacity and any advantage of economy of scale for the high schools is negated by the small nature of the junior highs.

Also, there remains facility upgrade needs. They are talking about $10 million in facilities upgrades at Emerson, however, most of it is not safety or structurally related. CBO Bruce Colby told the board that Emerson did not qualify for state emergency aid. Currently they only have a few million in the facilities funds.

Finally, as we suspected, the board would be required to find an additional budget reduction of nearly $450K under this option.

One of the more interesting parts of the discussion was the state's process for converted surplus property into general fund money. Basically the school district would have declared that they had no facilities needs, that they have completed all facilities projects. They could then sell Grande or Nugget fields and use the money for the general fund. However, the penalty is steep, as they would not be able to get state money for facilities for the next 10 years. Frankly, I do not understand why the state has such requirements. It seems much easier to raise money for facilities than for the general fund. For instance, they cannot take out a COP to fund general fund programs, but they could take out such a debt instrument to fund facilities.

A final point is that they are going to finally upgrade their facilities master plan which I think has not been upgraded since about 2000. That process will take roughly four months.

In the final analysis here, it seems that the board was not willing to close Emerson. For residents in West Davis, that would be a welcome change of course, but overall it does not make the picture look much less bleak.

In the end, despite the heroic efforts of the Davis Schools Foundation, despite the mobilization of parents and students across the city, we need a hard and reliable source of money and that will require another parcel tax.

While these cuts are painful, we should bear in mind how fortunate we are. Many communities lack the resources to be able to raise money privately to alleviate the pain of these budget cuts. Many communities lack the resources to be able to pass another parcel tax. Many communities lack the political will to do so. It remains to be seen if this community will be able to. My guess is that when push comes to shove it will and as a result, the students will be alright.

The bigger picture is one we also need to look at. We need to fund our education in California in a more reliable way that is not nearly as reliant on demographic shifts or vulnerable to economic downturns. That will be the challenge not for our school board, but for our legislature in the coming weeks, months, and unfortunately, but most probably, in the coming years.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting