Rich Rifkin: Davis schools are increasingly for commuter kids

In November 2016, voters in Davis approved Measure H, our most recent increase in the school parcel tax. The $620 yearly levy on homeowners was supposed to suffice for eight years.

Not even 18 months have elapsed since 71.9 percent favored raising that annual tax by $96. Now the district is discussing another hike, this time an added $240 per year for a total of $860.

Yet in the past 15 years, as Davis property owners have agreed to pay more and more to fund our local public schools, the share of students who don’t live in the district but go to school here has been rising.

When I inquired last week, the staff was not able to give me the total number of inter-district transfer students attending Davis schools now. But I have the data for prior years.

In 2005-06, there were 189 students who resided “out of district.” By 2009-10, that had jumped 77 percent to 334. In 2012-13, it was up another 79 percent to 597. And last year, it had climbed 26 percent more to 750 inter-district transfers.

Those 750 children are roughly divided equally among grades K-6 (261), 7-9 (252) and 10-12 (237).

When we had 189 transfers in 2005-06, the total student population in the district was 8,557. Last year, with 750 transfers, the total number of matriculates was essentially the same, 8,574.

So over 11 years, the percentage of non-resident children in Davis public schools quadrupled from 2.2 percent to 8.75 percent.

If our district did not have those transfer students, it’s likely that two schools — one elementary and one junior high — would have to close. It’s also certain that without the state money that goes with those kids, district employees would be laid off.

Yet the growing dependence on children who live in Woodland, West Sacramento, Esparto, Dixon, Winters, Vacaville and beyond and whose families do not pay the parcel taxes that Davis residents are forced to shell out each year certainly raises the question of fairness.

In 1984, when almost all children going to our schools lived here, we approved the first school parcel tax of $45 per year. That bite on homeowners has gradually and substantially increased.

Today, in inflation adjusted dollars, it is 5.8 times as much as it was 34 years ago. If the tax goes up another $240, the inflation-adjusted pain will be more than 8 times what it was originally.

Proponents of the parcel tax have traditionally made their case based on two arguments: that the money will fund a long list of programs; and that the state funding formula puts Davis at a disadvantage.

Recently, a third argument has been made: that with its current funding, the Davis school district cannot pay its teachers a competitive wage.

Shortly after Measure H was approved, I noted in this column that the increased amount would not, as the district promised, go to “outstanding academics in math, science, reading, writing, instructional technology and programs in athletics, arts and music; provide high-quality teachers; limit class sizes; and support student health and safety.”

Rather, due to AB 1469, a state law written in 2014 by the teachers’ unions, all that increase and much more would go to pay for more expensive pensions.

The school district neglected to mention that reality in its propaganda in favor of Measure H in 2016. But now, the millions of dollars per year in increases in pension-funding costs are front and center for the argument for an additional parcel tax increase this year.

School district spokesperson Maria Clayton recently told Davis Enterprise education reporter Jeff Hudson that “growing pension costs” are part of the reason the district cannot pay teachers more in salary.

Clayton said, “We need alternatives to raise revenue and/or reprioritize expenditures in order to increase employee compensation.”

Clayton, it should be noted, does not seem to understand that pension funding is compensation. So as this expense goes up, compensation rises. Moreover, the pension bills our district is paying don’t make Davis uncompetitive when it comes to employee pay. All public school districts are being hit with these same increases.

The argument that the state funding formula puts Davis at a slight disadvantage is partly true. However, with our local parcel taxes, Davis has more money per student than the other districts in our area.

The latest numbers are from 2015-16, and thus don’t include the Measure H tax increase. Davis schools received $11,301 per student; Winters, $11,350; Woodland $11,198; West Sacramento $10,959; Dixon $10,636; and Vacaville $10,330.

So if our school district is unable to pay a competitive salary to Davis teachers, it’s not for a lack of money. It’s because the district has chosen to spend more of its funds for non-classroom personnel.

At the same time, our city’s policy choices have made it much harder for young families with children to live here.

As a consequence of Measure J/R, the price of each square foot of  housing in Davis is now 65 percent higher than in nearby communities. Before 2000, the difference was around 10 percent. Our failure to approve new apartments also has driven rents through the roof.

So it is no wonder that many parents who work in Davis cannot afford to live here. If you think Davis homeowners should not be paying parcel taxes for kids who live in Vacaville and Woodland, you should question the no-growth agenda that has made Davis so expensive in which to live.

— Rich Rifkin is a Davis resident; his column is published every other week. Reach him at [email protected]


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