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Monday, August 25, 2008

Commentary: Why I Strongly Support Measure W--The Parcel Tax

I have been thinking about writing this commentary for several days now, ever since I put the work into the two articles last week on the parcel tax. As I was putting together those articles, I questioned myself. Why was I going through all this effort in support of this measure? This is not generally what the Vanguard does. The Vanguard covers the dark underbelly of Davis, exposes malfeasance in government, protects people from the excesses of governmental power, shines light on subjects not often covered enough. Why this issue?

As I was pondering this question, the answer of course was right in front of my face. The answer actually came to me last week during my interview with Jann Murray-Garcia.

Some people have used the closing of Valley Oak as an excuse to vote against the parcel tax. However, I think they have it backwards. You see, no one supported keeping Valley Oak open more than I did. I will match my 70 articles on or about Valley Oak, the late night meetings, the special coverage, against anyone's passion. Unless you sat on Davis OPEN itself, you will not win. And even then, I'll take it to a tie unless you are a certain dragon and the lovely lady who stands inside there come rain, heat, or fog.

No folks, if you believe in Valley Oak and the Valley Oaks of the world, you need to support the parcel tax. If you are worried about the achievement gap, then you need to support the parcel tax. If you do not want future parents to anguish over what school their kids will go to, then you need to support the parcel tax.

You see, unfortunately, and I am not casting aspersions at anyone, it's just the way things are right now, but when the economy goes south, when funding gets tight, the first things that go are funding to special programs and unfortunately by special programs I mean minority schools in Davis.

When I first saw the budget cuts list last winter, one of the things that drew my attention was cutting the climate coordinator position. I have been critical of the climate coordinator. But I also know how hard and how long people struggled to get that position created in the first place. The Human Relations Commission had a townhall meeting with former Superintendent David Murphy on the issue of bullying and racism, hundreds of parents came, students came forward with horror stories, it took a lot of work. Superintendent Murphy was at times intransigent. But in the end, the HRC and the community won out.

And now it was going to be gone in one fell swoop. It is not because the position is not important, it is not because the school board was against having the position, it is simply that when you have a choice because cutting elementary school science and the climate coordinator, it is not really much of a debate. And yet I know full well why that position was created in the first place and it will hurt a lot of kids if it is canceled.

I remember the meeting in 2007 when they were discussing the report from the Achievement Gap Task force and their recommendations, and how Tansey Thomas stood up and pointed out a very similar report from 1990 that was put on the shelf as soon as passions cooled and times got tough. I remember that in 2007, every single candidate running for the board brought up that as one of their goals--to help close the achievement gap. I do not know if I have heard the word uttered in 2008 and you know why? Because they are fighting to keep from firing 100 teachers.

At the end of the day, I believe in my heart of hearts that when budget times get tough, the first people to suffer are those who can least afford to suffer. Those who are the most vulnerable. It happens in all walks of life. The people who suffer the most are the most recent ones hired, those at the bottom end of the totem pole, those who are least able to create a safety net.

In Davis, I believe that the children of affluent middle class backgrounds will thrive regardless of whether or not the parcel tax passes. Are they better off with better schools with more challenging programs? Of course. However, they will prosper regardless. It is the children of those who are less fortunate who will not prosper under more difficult times with programs cut. These are the most vulnerable kids. These will be the ones to suffer the most. The children who go to the Valley Oaks of the world who had a school where they were thriving only to see it closed due to budget considerations. And yes, I am convinced that there are other schools that are very good in this district, but I do not believe you can replace that sense of empowerment and sense of community that was at work at Valley Oak Elementary School.

And though Valley Oak is now closed until further notice, there is still much to fight to protect, which is why I cannot in good conscience punish other children for mistakes made by the school board.

People have talked about fiscal mismanagement as a reason to vote against the parcel tax. I know something about fiscal mismanagement in this district as I spent a good four or five months researching what had happened in the district under Superintendent David Murphy and Budget Officer Tahir Ahad.

A few things about that I want to share. The first thing is that I did this investigation with full and complete cooperation from the school district and several of the board members. This investigation would not have been possible without their assistance. Moreover, the district went above and beyond the call of duty in assisting me. They absolutely wanted the public to know exactly what had happened under the previous administration. Two of the board members went on the record to discuss it with me.

The second thing is that the new school board, elected in 2005, cleaned up most of the problems that had occurred under the previous administration. Tahir Ahad left the district and eventually was replaced by Bruce Colby as the new chief budget officer. David Murphy left the district and eventually was replaced by James Hammond as the new superintendent. Frankly, James Hammond alone is reason to vote for this parcel tax, I cannot think of a better person to do this job than Dr. Hammond. I talked to him the day after the board decided not to support him on the charter school and all he could talk about was how sorry he was that he did not have another week to convince them to take the chance on it. He was genuine about that loss. No blame, no political posturing, just sincere compassion for those students.

The fiscal problems in this district are not the result of the actions of the current board. Not one single member of this board was around when the decision was made to put the facilities bond on the ballot. Not one single member of this board was there when the decision was made to hire Tahir Ahad or David Murphy for that matter. And not one single member of this board was there when the deadline was missed for matching funds to Montgomery.

But the majority of this board was in place when every single one of the FCMAT recommendations were carried out, when a new CBO and Superintendent were hired, when the Montgomery funding was rescued by a concerted and joint effort of the board and the interim Superintendent, when the fiscal ship of this district was righted. This board deserves the trust of the voters in handling the taxpayers money and giving the board the resources to continue to make this district one of the best in the state.

Finally folks, people are complaining about raising taxes again, one year after the previous parcel tax was passed. People are complaining that the number is $120 rather than $80 which would have been more likely to pass. I can appreciate both of those concerns.

However as far as the $120 goes, the district is asking for the amount of money that they believe they need in order to continue to fund the programs that have been listed here.

I have been critical of the city's overindulgence of certain public employee salaries and t he risk of raising more taxes to pay for their fiscal irresponsibility. Moreover, the amount of money people will pay in water rate hikes will dwarf the meager $120 annual tax increase. We are talking about up to $200 per month for water rate hikes compared with $120 per year for the parcel tax. This is on top of other fees, taxes, and possible rate hikes. There is really no comparison. Moreover, if I am going to pay out more money, I would choose to give money to help children be educated and help teachers earn a better living. Those are my priorities.

My biggest fear in all of this is that people may use the wrong reasons to not support education in Davis. It is not the children's fault that the previous administration made a series of very serious errors. It is not their fault that you may feel overburdened in your taxes, overwhelmed by a poor economy, a bad housing market, high fuel prices, etc. I understand all of that. But at the end of the day once again, we only get one shot at educating the youth in this community, they get only one shot at childhood, and for some kids, they need all the help they can get.

I hope for their sake and theirs alone you will consider supporting this tax as a modest investment into the future of these children, this community and this country.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting