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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Commentary: Growth is not the Answer to Schools Fiscal Problems

Saturday's Sacramento Bee editorial once again raises the lack of growth specter as the culprit for the problems of Davis schools.

The argument is alluring and has been repeated by some throughout the community no doubt over the last several weeks. If the problem is declining enrollment--and that is unarguably a problem--the solution must be to grow--right?

The Sacramento Bee editorial writes:
"The school spirit in Davis is inspiring, but this community – like others around the region – needs to recognize an underlying cause of its declining enrollment. Famously resistant to new development, Davis is not adding adequate housing to serve employees at the University of California, Davis, and service workers in town. As a result, these workers commute into town, and their kids go to other school districts. As Davis' population gets grayer, enrollment declines and the school district loses state funding as a result. Similar demographic trends are driving down enrollment in the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento County, forcing bruising battles over the closure of schools.

With its affluence and civic pride, Davis may mirror the success of some Bay Area school districts in raising millions of dollars to keep classrooms intact.

But if equal energy were focused on providing adequate housing in Davis, this college town could grow (even if only slightly) and forestall some of the enrollment crises that are plaguing its counterparts."
Sounds good. I even had a few people come up to me yesterday and cite the Sacramento Bee editorial as being right on. Without naming names, here, let's just say, people are not looking at the big picture with regards to growth.

Similar arguments existed last summer when the county was talking about lack of revenue, and people were saying, hey we just need more housing. The problem with using housing as a means to produce revenue is that it doesn't produce revenue on an on-going basis. So you can make revenue off development agreements, but once those homes are built, the cost of providing services ends up being a negative force on your revenue. So communities trying to finance themselves this way end up having to continuously grow. And if you take a look around at fast growth cities and counties, they are not in the black in terms of finances.

The can be said for school districts in fast growth or at least faster growth communities.

Parents--would you rather send your kids to Fairfield, Vacaville, Dixon, or Davis schools? It is really that simple.

There was a big article on the mess that is the Dixon School District--again, Dixon is one of the faster growth communities, certainly faster growth than Davis--yet they are having severe fiscal cuts backs as well.

Woodland continues to have contentiousness to the point where their board may face recall. West Sacramento, another fast growth city, cannot even get a facilities bond passed.

You are telling me that growth is the answer to schooling and education? Where's the evidence of that.

This is an argument I would expect from Davis or regional developers, not from the Sacramento Bee.

Has declining enrollment harmed the school finances in Davis? No doubt. But it is not the only factor.

Fiscal mismanagement as we have detailed over the past month has taken its toll, robbing the district of resources and eating away at a reserve that could have been used to soften the blow of the impending crisis.

How about over-construction of the schools? If we end up closing Emerson, that will be one Junior High and one Elementary School closed not that long after the school district built two new elementary schools and one new junior high. We must ask an important question here--who told us we needed these schools to be built? Who did the demographics for the district that led to the new construction--that would be consultant Vern Weber, who now works for Total School Solutions. There have been many who have raised serious concerns about Mr. Weber's projections.

It is easy to point the finger at declining enrollment. It's an alluring and simplistic target, but it avoids tougher questions.

We should not base our land-use policies on growth in order to maintain our schools because that is a fleeting mechanism at best. Faster growth cities simply do not have better schools than Davis, nor do most cities that are larger than Davis.

And frankly it is backwards. Even if we decided to grow today, it would be five to ten years before housing was built and demographic trends reversed. So this is not a quick fix solution to begin with.

Second, we can better structure our land use policies, but to do so it cannot be large sprawl developments that build "McMansions."

The city actually has a strong and reliable source it can use to produce housing for young families--the university. Young faculty is the most likely and most immediate source of young children. We simply need to produce housing that can accommodate these young families. The university is building West Village which will accommodate some of that type of housing, but I would recommend that the city and university partner to produce the type of housing that will enable young faculty members to move to Davis. That doesn't require massive new growth or new sprawl, but rather smart planning and cooperation with the university.

However, let us not pretend that rising enrollment is a panacea. Like most solutions it is a double-edged sword. It will aid on the funding side of the ledger but that does not mean that ultimately we will benefit from rapidly rising growth. That does not mean that larger school districts are better than smaller ones or that you can find a lot of larger ones better than Davis.

The bigger issue for me is that we continue to have a responsible board that makes wise and prudent fiscal decisions. For many years we did not, but the current board for the most part has their act together and in the long run that is more important than trying to impose more growth on the Davis community.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting