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Friday, December 12, 2008

DJUSD Moves Toward Changing Election Cycle

As I mentioned in a previous article on this subject, the move from odd-year elections for DJUSD board members to even-year elections make complete sense from a democratic standpoint and a budgetary standpoint.

From a political standpoint both Bob Dunning and Richard Harris expressed concerns about the major drawback, the fact that the board members would essentially be extending their term for a year. Looking at the issue purely from this standpoint however, obscures the benefits of the move. The biggest being the huge budget impact. But the secondary point being democratic factors. In 2007, around 30% of people turned out to vote for DJUSD board elections, Measure P, and Measure Q. In 2008, over 80% of the voters turned out to vote in the Presidential election and by extension in the Measure W election. Even in an average mid-term election, you are looking at well over 50% of the vote. To me it makes perfect sense and I will share more in the commentary portion of this article.

The board last night had their third discussion on this item without taking a vote. However, there is a clear three member board majority that favors this move pending a vote possibly next week.

The big change necessitating the move is also the fact that DJUSD would be the only election matter on the ballot in odd years and thus would have to bare the full cost of the election.

In a memo from Sandra Fowles, DJUSD Director of Fiscal Services she explains the impact:
"The district shared the ballot costs in 2007 with the Yolo Library District locally and the county costs with West Sacramento, Yolo County Office of Education (YCOE), and Woodland. In 2005 a statewide special election was held and the district shared costs with the state, the City of Davis locally and county wide with YCOE, Esparto, Winters and Woodland. In the election years of 2001 and 2003 the district did not share the costs with another district locally but shared the costs with other school districts county wide. The cost to run a Board member election in 2007 was 245% more than 2005. The cost is expected to increase another 43% for 2009 if Davis Joint Unified is to remain the sole election contest on the ballot for the November election.

The ability to conduct the district election strictly by mail is not currently an option. The County of Yolo is pursing legislation giving Yolo County this right."
County Clerk Freddie Oakley wrote the school district in September:

"The result of using that formula for the first time was a really awful "sticker shock". We subsequently adjusted the billed amounts downwards by removing some of the items that we were billing for the first time. In order to maintain a spirit of fairness and cooperation with the districts, we have permanently removed some of those items from the billing formula - for instance, the cost of my salary and the cost of some "allowable overhead." Any further adjustment would necessitate raising the issue with our auditor and Board of Supervisors.

In discussing ways to reduce or minimize election costs for the districts, we have discussed the advisability of districts changing their election schedules so that they move from the odd-year "Uniform District Election Code" (UDEL) schedule to the even-year "General Election" schedule.

We have posited that such a change would afford the districts the economies of scale that are the result of sharing the expenses of transportation, poll worker costs, "real estate space" on the ballot, and other inflexible expenses."
Board Member Richard Harris remains adamantly against the change, arguing that the voters voted him in for a four-year term, he considers it wrong to take an extra year.

Since he said it very succinctly in his December 4, 2008 letter to the editor in response to Bob Dunning's column, I will use his words from that which he forcefully reiterated last night:
"I will not vote to extend my own term of office because I don't believe elected officials should extend their own time in office.

I consider it a privilege to be on the school board and thank the people who voted me into office last year. But it is their right, not mine, to extend that term.

There may be savings from consolidating elections and I look forward to more discussion about the issue. But as I stated the other night, there are also benefits to school board elections being run separately from other elections.

We should consider those benefits versus potential savings from consolidating future elections without interjecting the notion of unilaterally extending our own terms."
Board Member Tim Taylor however passionately and eloquently summed up the counter-argument which seems to be carrying the day:
"The people elect you to take care of this district, and for anybody to say, well, 2009 we'll just bite the bullet, is not taking care of this district. And quite frankly I think that's thinking of the individual and not thinking of the collective. I think our job is to think about this district and think about the collective and think about what's in the financial health and security of this district. This is not a power grab for anybody, believe me. This is not even a personally wise decision for anybody to do on a personal level. It's only about the district. To think well it's not in my interest or I am somehow violating the trust... is the complete wrong way to look at this. The public has entrusted you with the financial security and the health of this district and if you say I'm going to spend fifty thousand dollars, much less a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, much less five hundred thousand dollars in 2009 that you don't have to spend, you're not entrusting, taking on that public trust ability. And quite frankly that is the beginning and end of the story."
Mr. Taylor doesn't see this as an equal decision, but he said that there are real on the ground consequences

Past Board President Sheila Allen:
"I am willing to take one for the team, to stay one more year if it meant a school could stay open, a teacher's job could be saved..."
She continued:
"I would do all sorts of things for this school district to save programs."
Newly elected Board President Gina Daleiden summed it up:
"I agree with what Tim and Sheila have said because I closed a school, we're still battle scarred from that. I won't do that again for a few more months because I have a funny feeling about it."
Ms. Daleiden continued:
"I think it's a no-brainer when you are talking about laying off teachers and destroying programs."
I agree with the position of Boardmembers Taylor, Allen, and Daleiden. I think this is a no-brainer. Frankly, if the biggest cost is the political future of board members because of this move, it is a small price to pay. It is far better than the prospect of closing a school or laying off teachers. We are not talking about a small sum of money here, we are talking about perhaps half a million or more. That's a school right there. That's perhaps eight FTE teaching positions.

I think Tim Taylor is absolutely correct when he said that the voters elected the board to take care of the district, and this is the best way to take care of the district.

One of the first votes I cast was in an election in San Luis Obispo which consolidated the ballot to even years. From a financial standpoint it makes sense and from the standpoint of democracy, getting good voter participation it makes sense. The 30 percent turnout in 2007 was both a waste of taxpayer money and problematic for democracy. And we saw that the city could support education even when 80%-plus turn out at the polls and I suspect people were as aware if not more aware of Measure W as opposed to Measure Q.

One final point, it seems like they would put the parcel tax on February 2012 ballot and it would take effect for the fall. The downside to that is that if it were to fail, the district would have some difficulty getting it on the June 2012 ballot. But it may be possible. That would be the only hurdle to that dilemma, I know people were asking about it for the townhall meeting.

As Tim Taylor pointed out, this is not a political power grab, this is a prudent economic cost savings during one of the worst financial times ever. If board members such as Richard Harris are uncomfortable with that, and I can respect his trepidation, they can always resign. I do not say that flippantly and I hope that Mr. Harris, despite my perhaps policy disagreements with him, does not resign over this matter.

It appears this will be put to rest next week, I hope they can vote on it and I hope it does not end up a 3-2 vote, which might be more harmful than the action itself.

---David M. Greenwald reporting