The question facing local voters in this spring’s Measure A election is simple. Do you want to see Davis schools continue to operate at their current level of excellence? Or are you willing to accept bigger class sizes, fewer teachers, a shorter school day for most junior high students, fewer course options for high school students and fewer counselors?
Since 2008, the state has reduced funding to the Davis school district by about $6 million, slashing the budget from about $71 million to $65 million. Class sizes for students in kindergarten through third grade have increased from 20 to 25 students. Core English and math classes at the high school have between 30 and 40 students.
If the $200-per-year emergency parcel tax is approved, the $3 million per year it will raise over the next two years will allow these class sizes to remain. But if it fails, K-3 classes will swell to about 30 students per teacher.
Another big cutback if Measure A fails: Students in seventh and eighth grades will lose their seventh period, and the practical result is that students will be able to choose only one elective. Will it be a music class or a foreign language? Art or computers?
Measure A’s failure also would mean cuts to the ranks of school secretaries, custodians, yard-duty workers and counselors.
“It’s pretty devastating, the budget we’ve come up with that we’ll have to do if Measure A doesn’t pass,” said school board president Richard Harris.
Or as Superintendent Winfred Roberson put it, “We’re already ‘bare-boning’ it” in terms of what is being offered to students, as compared to a few years ago.
Trustee Sheila Allen said “the gravity of Measure A especially hit home on Tuesday night, when I heard the Emerson Junior High Choir sing a beautiful rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water.’ That is what Measure A is — a bridge over troubled water for our students.
“While the state of California is not able to fund their education at a sufficient level right now, Davis will not let that happen to our students.”
History of support
Measure A is a parcel tax — a flat charge of $200 per year per single-family home over a two-year period, or $20 per year per unit for multi-unit dwellings (apartments, condos, duplexes, etc.).
Davis voters first approved a parcel tax in the early 1980s, locally restoring funds that had been lost by the school district after voters approved 1978’s Proposition 13, which limited property taxes. Voters have consistently approved renewals of the tax — which requires a two-thirds majority — ever since, at roughly four-year intervals.
The situation has grown critical of late, as the state budget has gone from bad to worse. In November 2007, Davis voters approved Measure Q, a $200-per-year tax for single-family homes, which will expire on June 30, 2012. But by November 2008, the state budget crisis had carved deeply into the Davis schools’ budget, and voters approved Measure W, an “add-on” three-year parcel tax that charged $120 per year per single-family home. Measure W also will expire in June 2012.
But the cuts from Sacramento have kept on coming. Davis school leaders have covered the budget gap in patchwork fashion, with cuts to teaching ranks (and corresponding class size increases), a voluntary retirement incentive and donations raised by the Davis Schools Foundation.
Now, the school board is turning to voters once again with Measure A, which basically amounts to a two-year reprieve, while the district works out a longer-term financial plan. Officials also are hoping the state’s economy finally turns a corner.
“It is an emergency stopgap measure,” Harris said. The alternative is immediate program and staffing cuts.
The $200 in Measure A would be on top of the current $320 per year paid under Measures Q and W. It’s the largest total amount voters have ever been asked to approve, and it’s coming at a time when the regional and national economies are still suffering.
Harris is counting on local voters to say “yes.” “It’s all about local control,” he said.
The state has proved to be a most unreliable budget partner. State funds in many categories have been reduced or deferred, to the point that the Davis school district soon will have less in its cash reserves than it has in IOU promises from the state.
“People move to Davis because of the schools,” Harris said. “I have friends that are moving here from the Bay Area, and they’re moving to Davis because the schools are the best that they can find.
“If people value their community, they’re going to value that local control to keep the schools great for the kids — as well as their property values,” he continued. It’s well documented that communities with good schools have higher home values. Davis homes typically sell for $150,000 to $200,000 more than similar-sized homes in other communities, making the local education system an investment that many homeowners want to protect.
“I’m helping with the Measure A phone bank,” Harris said. “Some people are voting for it because of their kids, other people are voting for it because they want the school to be great, so the community is great.”
Associate Superintendent Bruce Colby also views the election as a matter of “local control. It’s about what we want education to be. Since the state is no longer going to fund it, we need to take over the control locally to provide the quality programs that have traditionally served Davis students — programs that the Davis community has come to expect. It’s really about what Davis is.”
Superintendent Roberson pointed out that Measure A funds no new programs.
“This is huge for us,” Roberson said. “It affects our students. These are front-line people we could lose, people who work with students and touch their lives. I’m proud of our school board for recognizing the need to introduce Measure A as a means of preserving the staffing levels we currently have. So while the teachers and personnel are part of it — a huge part of it — ultimately, this is all about our students, and what we’re able to deliver to them.
“Measure A allows us to maintain staffing to deliver similar services to what we’ve had this past year.”
Roberson also has been helping with the phone bank. Are voters surprised when they find the superintendent himself ringing them up and asking for their vote?
“The people I’ve talked with have been very supportive and cordial,” Roberson said. “Mostly, they tell me ‘Hey, I’ve supported parcel tax measures in the past, and I will be supporting this one.’
“We can’t wait on the state,” he added. “The state is not in a position to bail us out. This is our opportunity to act locally, and do what is in the best interest of our students.”
Like previous versions of the school parcel tax, Measure A has a senior exemption. To claim it, residents must show they are at least 65 years old, own their home and live in that home. Colby said about 900 seniors claim the exemption for Measures Q and W.
The Davis City Council voted unanimously Tuesday to endorse Measure A. The Davis Teachers Association and the local unit of the California School Employees Association also have formally voiced support. Measure A has not drawn any organized opposition.
Vote by mail
Measure A will be conducted as a vote-by-mail election, with no polling places. Ballots will be mailed to registered voters next week. New voters can continue to register through April 18.
Ballots must be received at the Yolo County Elections Office in Woodland by 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 3. They may be mailed, or may be dropped off in a special box at the Stephens Branch Library, 315 E. 14th St. in Davis.
Holding the election by mail costs the school district about $120,000 less than a traditional election with polling places.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or (530) 747-8055.