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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Commentary: On School Funding and Budget Crises--This is About Educating Your Kids

The pace at which events occur in this community is sometimes overwhelming and there are times it is difficult to pause for reflection. When in Sacramento two nights ago covering the Democratic Pre-Endorsement Conference a friend of mine and a fellow blogger who lives up in the foothills made the comment that Davis and Yolo County are interesting places to live where there is a large amount of action.

And sometimes it is simply too much action. There are things that I have wanted to cover that I have simply not had enough time to cover because the pace of events is so rapid.

It was a call last night that got me thinking about something. At the March 6, 2008 school board meeting--packed to the brink with students from DaVinci High School who were trying to save their school--the board was discussing options and mentioned that the deadline for putting another parcel tax on the ballot was March 7, 2008. So that option was not on the table. Their plan is to hope that the Governor's cuts are not quite as deep--a reasonable hope at this point, I'll add. But the Governor's cuts are only 40% of the cuts. Then they are hoping that fundraising will cut into the needed cuts as well and in November 2008 they can put another parcel tax on the ballot.

At the time it made some sense to me, now after another discussion it no longer makes sense to me. The budget problem did not suddenly emerge on March 6, 2008. In fact, it did not seem on our radar at all until early January, but it had to be on someone's mind even at that point.

Clearly by early January when they were talking $4 million in budget cuts, why wasn't one of the items immediately on the table dealing with instead of the spending side, the revenue side?

There is a perception out there by some that school districts in general are bloated masses of bureaucracy that are easy to cut. And yet when it comes down to it, when we actually look at the system in place, it becomes obvious that to cut real money, you have to cut programs that people (especially kids) like. Our system, inefficient as it is, even with a good degree of past fiscal mismanagement still operates in such a way that the only way to cut real money, not talking $10,000 but in the millions, is to close a school, cut music, cut language, cut programs people want and care about.

Fine, I get it. So why not put a contingent parcel tax on the ballot that kicks in given revenue problems? Why not have it as a temporary item, for one year, for two years, to ensure that we don't cut these programs. And then be honest and forthright with the public and tell them that we need this so that we don't have to close Emerson, we don't have to fire three-quarters of the teachers at DaVinci, so that we can still have music, and GATE, and programs that help the disadvantaged, and programs that help the smart kids, and programs that help the kids that don't quite fit in elsewhere...

Why did we not just lay all out on the line and tell people that if they want their great schools that they pay twice as much in property value so their kids can attend, then we all have to pitch in an additional $50 to $100 per year and save them right now?

Instead, I have high school students writing me asking me to come to their high school so I can see all the great programs that they have.

Instead, we have parents and teachers looking for ways to fundraise so that we can put enough money together to land a bit softer.

They have a blog now that is focused on saving Emerson Junior High. They have a rally on Tuesday at 4 PM at Central Park in Davis.

I want to talk about Emerson because I live just two blocks away.

First their message is simple:
"We can not allow the School District to take rushed decisions without an in depth task force study. The proposal to close one Jr. High will have deep negative repercussions across the whole Davis community and the environment! Laying off 20% of our teachers, librarians, psychologists, etc. guts our wonderful schools, reduces our quality of life, lowers our property values and decreases the city's tax revenue."
I agree and I also understand the school district's dilemma. But now I want to talk about the City of Davis' dilemma. You have Valley Oak that is closing down pending a miracle from the County Board of Education. You have a shopping center where there is no longer a grocery store.

Now you have West Davis. West Lake Shopping Center is without its grocery store. Now they are talking about closing down Emerson Junior High.

Huge swaths of Davis are now becoming without grocery store and without school.

Tim Wallace who lives across the street from Emerson in Village Homes writes into the Enterprise:
It's not hard to imagine that the property where Emerson Junior High School is sited being worth tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to real estate developers, even in the current market. Upon visiting the Davis JointUnified School District Web site, I couldn't find anything even remotely resembling a cost-benefit analysis, or any analysis whatsoever justifying what seems to be the foregone conclusion, apparently advanced by the school board, that "Emerson will be closed."
He continues:
The only problem I can see with this plan, if that's what it is, is that it assumes the forbearance and apathy of West Davis parents and homeowners who will lose big in their quality of life and home values if it's enacted. Further, it makes assumptions about our willingness to suffer disproportionately to the rest of Davis , based on no evidence and little to no meaningful public discussion.
While I found it impossible to tell from their Web site whether the closure of Emerson is on the agenda of the next DJUSD board meeting, I believe it's on for March 20. West Davis might think about waking up before it's too late to engage the board in a discussion."

I think this is a good point and I think we have all been asleep for too long on this.

Don't get me wrong, I like most of the board members, I think they are good people who have a real passion for education--even ones that I disagree with on substantive policy issues. I think we hired a good man in James Hammond to be the Superintendent. But I think we got blindsided on this.

Here is my suggestion. Meet with County Clerk Freddie Oakley. Figure out how to get a ballot measure on the ballot before November. Figure out how to cut costs by making it vote by mail only. I do not think we can wait until November to save our schools. And I do not think we can afford to cut what is being proposed. Let's all come together and fix the problem. Maybe that's a crazy idea, but we have to do something for our community and for the kids.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting