Toward a bright and fair future on both sides of the tracks

By May 27, 2011

Last night, I saw the beauty of privilege. In the inspired eyes of the student musicians of Emerson Junior High School, the dedicated and patient eyes of the music teachers, and the adoring eyes of hundreds of parents (including mine and my wife’s), I saw the some of the best of what Davis has to offer.

On that glowing stage were 250 shining examples of what is possible when talent meets the means to support this talent to blossom.

Listening to a chorus sing at an earlier school concert on the eve of the election, school board member Sheila Allen wisely reflected that Measure A was a “bridge over troubled waters.” Now that we have crossed over this treacherous bridge, there is a lot to celebrate.

We have dodged the latest budget cut bullet, sparing teachers and aides from pink slips, classroom size from explosion, and school periods from implosion. While not funding art and music directly, by funding a seventh period, Measure A provides the opportunity for students to take these electives, and so keeping the pipeline open to stages like those at Emerson Junior High.

But what is back stage? What is invisible behind the bright spotlights? It’s the fact in towns around our region that lack the wealth needed to support this self-taxation — and the private means to pay for private lessons — these stages are empty. It’s not because of lack of student talent, of dedicated teachers, of parental love: It’s the economy, stupid.

It’s the unfair, unequal and unsustainable mal-distribution of wealth that divides towns like from towns like Dixon from towns like Delano.

Measure A kept the lights on stages in Davis at least for at least two years, but is it sustainable (maybe) and is it fair (not so much)? Even within Davis itself, Measure A’s across-the-board nature is regressive. That is, to homeowners in six-bedroom mansions, the $200 tax represents a fraction of housing value while to low-income homeowners, this amount may push them deeper into housing poverty.

At the state level, SB 653, introduced by Darrell Steinberg and under consideration in the state Legislature would allow local officials (city, county, school boards) to levy, increase or extend certain local taxes and fees. This is a reasonable response the Legislature’s gridlock — based largely on Republican unwillingness to raise taxes sufficiently to pay for the California and American dream.

However, without statewide revenue and financing policies that can provide for excellent and enriched educational opportunities for children in all communities, regardless of ability to pay, we risk the production of a landscape of inequity across the region and state.

Reform efforts such as California Forward (http://www.cafwd.org) offer some important elements to a revitalized state budgeting process. Their support of Prop. 25, for example, which allowed for a majority vote to pass state budgets was a good first step.

However, expanding this principle to allow for majority votes on tax legislation is also needed to break the state gridlock, where a no-tax minority can hold the state hostage.

While it is understandably considered the “third rail” in California politics, doing away with Prop. 13, which strangled local finance and shifted funding and control for education and many basic services up to the state level, must be considered a target of opportunity for fundamental improvements in the state’s fortunes.

Without revenue-generation approaches that are proportional to wealth, such as property tax and corporate taxes, Gov. Jerry Brown’s otherwise positive efforts to return funding and control of education and related functions to the cities and counties will simply deepen the divide between rich and poor places and people in the state.


To shift gears:  Bravo to the Davis City Council for its progressive civic leadership in approving an at-grade bike and pedestrian crossing of the Union Pacific railroad tracks! This decision will breach the UP’s separation wall designed to keep Olive Drive residents ‘in their place” on the wrong side of the tracks.

The investments in planning and construction costs are a very fair price to pay for a community that is integrated across its geographic, racial, ethnic and income landscape.

City Councilwoman Sue Greenwald’s admonition in The Enterprise that the city ought to consider infrastructure when approving housing developments is a sound one: as long as this is implemented by providing adequate infrastructure, not restricting affordable housing such as that available in places like Olive Drive.

Once the project funding is approved, this would be a powerful opportunity to engage residents on both sides of the tracks in a participatory design process to ensure that the new infrastructure can truly be a bridge across troubled water.

Together we stand, Davis.

— Jonathan London, Ph.D., is a Davis resident and parent. He shares this monthly column with Jann Murray-García. Reach him at [email protected]

Jonathan London

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