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Monday, September 08, 2008

District Chief Business Officer Makes Case For Parcel Tax

The Davis Enterprise on Sunday carried an op-ed by Bruce Colby, the chief business officer of the Davis Joint Unified School District and Jim Belenis, a financial planner and a member of the school district's Business Advisory Committee. In it they lay out the situation facing this district--we either need to pass Measure W or face pretty steep budget cuts.

As they put it:
This year's state budget battle - which is still ongoing - put us on notice that we face a new reality. For at least the near future, funding from the state of California will not be adequate to maintain the quality education programs we currently offer to Davis children and teens.
It is a pretty basic but accurate point--the state is cutting its budget, if the Davis public wants to maintain the current education programs, then we have to pony up and replace state funding. If we do not, then we will see cuts.

Last year we were able to bridge the gap with a combination of fundraising from the Davis Schools Foundation and "rainy day" funds.
"The gap between the education our students need and the money we have was bridged this year by two sources of one-time money: $1.5 million from the fundraising drive led by the Davis Schools Foundation and $1.2 million from 'rainy day' funds. This allowed us to rescind more than 100 layoff notices that were given to our teachers and save our programs."
They then lay out exactly what would be cut:
"On the chopping block would be drastic cuts to our elementary school science program; class periods for core science, math, English and social sciences; librarians; our music program; class size reduction in ninth- and 10th-grade English and ninth-grade math; foreign language; and other classes that prepare our children for college or to transition to the workplace."
There are two options then: increase revenue or cut spending.
"Measure W, on the ballot Nov. 4, will let voters decide whether to pursue the first option, increasing revenue.

Measure W assesses homeowners $120 per year, with a voluntary exemption for residents who are 65 or older. Apartments are assessed at a lower rate. The tax will last for three years and expenditures require review by a citizens oversight committee. The parcel tax requires a two-thirds Davis voters majority for approval.

Funds raised by Measure W will go only to preserve these classroom instruction programs and librarians that are threatened by state cutbacks; no new programs will be funded."
If increasing revenue does not happen, then we have to cut roughly $2.4 million from the districts funding next year.
"If Measure W does not pass, we must find ways to slash $2.4 million from the district's general fund early next year. Last spring, district staff, board members, parents and community members struggled mightily to make cuts in the budget that would have minimal impact on students. In order to preserve program and reduce our spending deficit, the district has already reduced its ongoing budget by $1.1 million annually through belt-tightening in administration, operations and staffing."
As we demonstrated before, a huge amount of district money goes directly to the classrooms. That means any cuts have to come from the classrooms.
"The financial reality is that 82 percent of the district's budget goes straight into direct student support in classrooms, counseling offices, school offices and libraries. With maintenance and utilities included, the district spends more than 91 percent of its budget on teaching students and operating schools."
Mr. Colby and Mr. Belenis argue that the district is among the best in the state at putting money directly in the classroom and that the district has done well at containing costs over the past five years.
"This record of delivering funds directly to classroom learning and minimizing administrative overhead is one of the best in the state. If forced to make deep reductions, we have few remaining options that avoid negative impacts to our students.

The district also has worked to keep spending under control, relying on extraordinary staff and community support to maintain excellent schools. Over a five-year period, from 2003-04 to the approved budget for 2008-09, total spending rose only minimally, keeping pace with inflation."
For those who think we can reach these goals by trimming fat, that has been tried and no one has been able to find enough fat to cut.
"Participants in a community budget workshop found little fat to cut. More than 100 community members gathered at the Veterans' Memorial Center on April 7 to answer difficult questions about budget priorities. What was more important: science or math, music or English? Reduced class sizes for 10th-grade English or librarians?"
Bottom line:
"Today we are at a crossroads. Either we find and support additional local funds for our schools, or vital educational programs will be cut. That is the choice we now face in Measure W: Protect what we have today, or begin slicing away at educational programs in our schools."
Commentary on Emerson School Closure

For regular readers of the Vanguard, neither these arguments nor the figures are new. The case for Measure W is very basic. The public is going to have to make a choice as to what their priorities are here. And the choice is a simple one. For $120 per year additional taxes, they can keep the same level of educational funding that we have had the last few years. That means teachers remain in the classroom and schools remain open.

Last week there was a rumor floating around that Emerson would be closed regardless of what happens with Measure W and that the school board had already made that decision.

As near as I can tell, that rumor is completely false. First of all, that would be a Brown Act violation since the board members are unable to discuss policy matters outside of the formal meeting structure. Of course, the Brown Act gets violated from time-to-time. But I have seen no evidence to suggest this has occurred in this case.

Second, I do not see three votes right now to close Emerson let alone some kind of consensus. I do not really want to guess with names, but in the last round it seemed there were three members of the board who were just not going to close that school under almost any circumstance and that was during the budget crisis. I certainly do not see the will to do it if Measure W passes and the district is on sound fiscal standing.

But third, if your top fear is closing Emerson, and I can understand that if you are a resident of West Davis and have a child who is Junior High age, then the most likely way to protect Emerson is to pass the parcel tax. Will that guarantee it remaining open? No. There are no guarantees in life and certainly none in the case of Emerson Junior High. There are issues that could arise that have nothing to do with the fiscal situation that may necessitate its closure. That would have to do with costs to repair and the necessity of making those repairs.

However, if Measure W does not pass, then the district again faces $2.4 million in budget cuts. Last time they figured out they could save roughly a quarter of that by closing Emerson and playing the shuffle game with students across the other two junior high schools. Faced with the prospect of laying off additional teachers or closing a school, the district under those conditions would be far more likely to close a school. Even then, it is unclear that they would. Of course part of the rationale for delaying a decision on closing the school was the speed with which they would have to do it and the impact on the children and parents.

Bottom line, the safest course of action if you are concerned with closing a school is to keep the district at full funding. A budget crunch makes it far more likely to close a school even if full funding does not guarantee it remains open.

The last thing the board wants to do is have more people marching against it after they get the parcel tax passed. It was very difficult for them last year. In private, board members have told me that they did not sign up to be board members to close schools and that anyone who has been through the process would never want to go through it again.

Again from my perspective the best way to keep schools open is to ensure full funding. Last year the Davis Schools Foundation was able to save us from a horrific situation. I do not really get the sense that some of the people who post regularly on this blog realize how bad the situation was or would have been had the cuts actually gone through.

I sat through a lot of those board meetings until the wee hours of the morning. I sat with anxious parents who feared their children's programs would be cut and teachers would be laid off. I sat next to high school students who came out in support of their teachers and their schools.

There is something tragic about a student having to come to a board meeting and staying until late on a school night in hopes that they keep their school open and their teacher employed. I think if more people had been through this and saw the looks on their faces and feel the anguish and anxiety that they experienced, they would see this situation through very different eyes.

Frankly it is something I never want to experience again as an interested observer. There have been good times covering community events and there have been bad times. What happened last spring was by far the most difficult times.

The students, the teachers, and the parents deserve not to have to go through this again next spring.

---Doug Paul Davis reporting