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

Monday, June 09, 2008

Commentary: Steady Enrollment for Next Year?

At least based on the number of students enrollment for the fall, the district will basically have the same number of students next year as they did this year, after suffering a somewhat large decline from 2006-07.

The Davis Enterprise quoted Clark Bryant who is the director of curriculum and instructions.
"'I wouldn't want to get to the place yet where I'd say it's good news,' Bryant said. 'But it does give some indication of stabilizing. However, the numbers do fluctuate over the summer. The time when it really counts is October, when we do the California Basic Education Data System assessment.' That figure establishes the level of funding the school district will receive from the state."
This coupled with the announcement earlier from Davis Demographics that enrollment would stabilize over the next ten years, suggests that perhaps the alarm folks were sounding in the early part of this year is not quite as alarming.

The question is really what is ideal in terms of enrollment. Obviously declining enrollment has serious drawbacks in terms of loss of revenue and ineligibility for certain matching funds for new buildings.

On the other hand, it is far from clear that increasing enrollment is ideal. Building new neighborhoods tends to lead to surge and decline cycles of increased enrollment but then a leveling off as the neighborhood ages. The pressure of the unequal building of schools and building too many new classrooms can lead to problems down the line as we have now discovered.

As we suggested a few months ago, it is not clear that rapidly growing cities have better schools than slower growing cities. In fact, you can look across the region and see various problems.

From that perspective, having a relatively stable number of students, if you can sustain it, might be ideal. The facilities would stay stable and need only upkeep and maintainence. Funding would be relatively stable and therefore not have serious fiscal impacts on the district.

There is another factor involved here and that is the declining enrollment statewide which has nothing to do with local land use policies.

The Davis Enterprise article mentions this:
"Currently, there is a demographic bulge of people in their late teens and early 20s - born in the late 1980s and early 1990s - who are finishing high school or attending college. UC Davis, for instance, is experiencing record enrollment, and the University of California and California State University systems are crowded.

As this demographic bulge graduates from college, and moves into their late 20s and early 30s - the peak child-bearing years - a gentle uptick in elementary school enrollment is expected in many California school districts, including Davis, starting in about eight years. "
These natural cycles of population are based on macro population characteristics. Davis may simply be a more extreme version of this exacerbated perhaps by its college town setting, higher home prices, and slower growth policies.

One thing that is more clear, is that building more neighborhoods has its own set of unintended consequences. For example, the building of Mace Ranch added students to the district temporarily and led to the pressure to open a new school. Promises made to the homeowners however, forced that new school to open to the detriment of other existing schools. And so Korematsu is indeed open now, but at the expense of the closing of Valley Oak.

In fact, if we look at the population growth from the late 1980s and 1990s, we see that it led to the opening of a new Junior High and two new elementary schools. These were just built five years ago. This year, until the board reversed course, we faced closing one Junior High and we already closed an Elementary School.

Some of this was based on the poor demographic work of the previous demographic consultant; however, some of it is due to the nature of relying on new housing to fund new schools. A lot of promises get made, but sometimes it causes more problems down the road.

Follow Up on Parcel Tax

I wanted to follow up on a few of the comments made in response to Saturday's column. There are certainly programs and positions that can be cut in the district. However, the district looked pretty hard for easy cuts to make to get to originally $4.5 million, now perhaps $3 million. There were just not a lot of cuts. Some suggested a cheaper Superintendent, but it's not clear how much cheaper the district could go and still be talking a reduction in the tens of thousands in spending, which is really a drop in the bucket. Likewise the climate coordinator position could be eliminated for some savings, but that would again be a small drop in the bucket. Regardless, you still need to make the tough cuts to get into the millions.

Second point is that the district does have an oversight committee. It is reasonable to ask whether it has the independence and the teeth to do the job. As someone mentioned in a post a lot of the school board members and some of the administrators read this blog, so if you have good suggestions on how to improve things, it would be helpful.

Third, some have suggested that no one is going to vote for another parcel tax. This is a district that stepped up in crisis to voluntarily raise $1.7 million. There will be just as much of a crisis next year as well if we do not pass a new parcel tax.

Fourth, I think Stan Forbes comments, which he had mentioned to me earlier in the year as well, are good ones that will facilitate passage. Tie the parcel tax to actual need and make it year-to-year on a need-by-need basis. I think that will inspire greater confidence.

The bottom line is I believe you can find $300,000 to $500,000 in things that are of questionable importance in the current budget, but the district looked very hard at finding $4.5 million and did not come close without painful cuts to facilities, staff, and programs. I just do not see another way around it. We must pass a parcel tax to help our schools.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting