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

Monday, September 22, 2008

Guest Commentary: DJUSD parcel tax analysis and recommendation

by Don Shor

How should you vote on Measure W? That depends on
-- your assessment of the causes of the current predicament,
-- your guesses about future funding stability, and
-- your faith in your elected officials and district staff.
I was curious about the history of the present predicament and wanted to analyze the district’s finances. For a while, it was pretty hard to find clear information. and the state Dept of Ed site are useful resources. A fellow blogger sent me some statistics and Bruce Colby provided detailed information, and I thank both of them. The conclusions here are my own.

Most of the district’s money comes directly from the state, based on the enrollment. Most of the district’s money goes to instructional expenses: teachers, teaching staff, books and supplies.

Myth: enrollment decreases are the cause of the district’s fiscal problems.

Fact: Paid ADA enrollment has dropped less than .3% per year since 2002-3, a total decrease of only 1.6% over the entire 2002-8 period. This is a total reduction of 134 paid ADA students from 2002 to 2007. Enrollment appears to be up a bit this year.

Costs should be proportional to enrollment, as income is. You would expect the district’s expenses to rise by about the rate of inflation (16% overall 2002-7), adjusted for any change in enrollment (down 1.6%).

Based on those criteria, the district budget for 2007 should be about $67.5 million.
The actual (projected) budget for 2007-8 was $73.8 million.

So over the past six years, DJUSD expenses have increased $6.3 million (10%) more than they “should” have. We’ll call this “extra.”

Where did the money go?

So what expenses were rising faster than the rate of inflation (adjusted for enrollment) in DJUSD between 2002 and 2007-8?

Myth: bloated administrative costs are the problem.

Fact: administrative costs actually rose slower than the rate of inflation.

Teacher pay. With a slight decrease in enrollment 2007/2002, certificated salaries increased 20%. Difference over inflation, adjusted for enrollment: $1.8 million “extra.”

The number of teachers, after dropping slightly from 2002 to 2003, remained nearly constant, at least through 2006 (this number is pretty hard to pin down).

Davis teachers are paid, on average, slightly more than the statewide average. Their benefits package is comparable to other districts.

Teacher pay increases in 2005 and 2006 made up for increases in the previous two years that were well below inflation. But the 6% increase in the 2007 budget is a pay increase above the rate of inflation through 2007.

Staff pay. During the same time period (2007/2002), classified salaries increased 23%. Difference over inflation, less enrollment: $0.9 million “extra.”

The biggest increases were in the 2005 and 2006 school years, when certificated and classified salaries increased by 7% and 11% respectively, each year.

Benefits increased 31% 2007/2002: $1.3 million “extra.” According to one board member, DJUSD benefits had been pretty paltry. They are now in line with other school districts.

Books and supplies increased 61%: $1.5 million “extra.”

Services and other operating expenses increased 41%: $1.6 million “extra.”

There was a big jump in Services and other operating expenses in 2006: 27%, a single year increase of nearly $2 million. This includes increases in utility costs ($400,000), special ed transportation, payments to other districts, legal fees, consultants, and settlements. 2006 was a messy year.

Why didn’t they go broke sooner?

Fortunately for the school district, total revenues increased 22% during this time period, so income was actually increasing faster than the rate of inflation as well. DJUSD had nearly $13 million more money total in 2007 vs. 2002.

So what’s the problem? Unfortunately, total expenditures increased 25%: the district spent $14.7 million more.

Two big factors:

Some district expenses are restricted, and the state has been reimbursing less than these cost the district.

The state is not giving ADA cost-of-living increases, at least for 2008, so revenues will dip.

To their credit, the board has proposed an essentially flat budget for 2008-9 that will not even account for inflation. They are not hiring new teachers, nor are they budgeting for a pay increase. Administration has been trimmed. If they can hold the line on the expenses that are within their control, expenses and revenues are expected to balance in 2010 or so. But there is a gap between revenues and expenses for the next two budget years. School districts can’t run a deficit; in fact, they are required to maintain a prudent reserve.

The proposed parcel tax would bridge that gap in revenue with about $2.4 million per year for three years. It would maintain the current budget level and a healthy reserve, allowing the district to weather future state budget crises. It is unlikely that districts will get a full cost-of-living increase in the next couple of state budgets.

If Measure W doesn’t pass, the number of teachers will have to be cut for at least a year or so. That’s where the money goes, so that is what will be cut. Teachers equal programs and low student/teacher ratios. You can quibble about this program or that one, but it is the total number of teachers that matters. Programs would be cut and student/teacher ratios would increase. Since the lower grades are at state-mandated ratios, the effect would fall disproportionately on grades 7 – 12. Enrollment has been increasing in those grades as it declines in the lower grades.

To some degree, this comes down to trust.

As a strong supporter of Valley Oak, and then the charter proposal, I have serious issues with the board’s actions in the last couple of years. Closing Emerson is often discussed. There has been turbulence in the administration. This parcel tax will not be an easy thing to sell, and I share much of the skepticism others have voiced.

Some recommendations:

The district needs to update its web site and provide fiscal information in an easy-to-read manner.

Staffing should be proportional to enrollment. The district should implement a hiring freeze to adjust for the slight enrollment decrease over the last few years.

Expense increases should not exceed the rate of inflation, or the rate reimbursed by the state, whichever is lower.

Those are simple guidelines an oversight committee can enforce.

So if you have faith that this newly-elected school board will keep expenses in check, and will continue to be honest about fiscal issues, you will probably be willing to vote for this parcel tax on a one-time basis. If you are skeptical, talk directly to the board members and staff about your concerns. I think you’ll find them approachable and willing to provide information.

My own thoughts?

I don’t vote here, but as a local property owner I do pay this tax: business parcels are taxed at $120 per year. My kids went to DJUSD K – 12 as interdistrict transfer students. We went out of our way to bring our kids into this district each year for more than 14 years. The teaching quality and program choices here are excellent. Budget cuts would directly affect those.

Unlike the ongoing parcel tax that voters just approved, the board should not expect this tax to be renewed automatically by the voters. There are no guarantees, but the trend lines suggest that it would not be necessary. But with the loss of cost-of-living increases from the state and the continued increase in mandated, under-funded programs, Measure W gives DJUSD breathing room.

Don Shor is a business owner in Davis, owning Redbarn Nursery.