News Literacy

“Eye on your dollar” series

I started an investigative news column in my high school paper, The HUB, investigating our district’s use of taxpayer money. In an effort to monitor power, I end every column with my recommendation about whether the use of funds should be maintained. 

“Library after-hours program”

Note: I interviewed two school librarians, two library technicians, a public information officer and the district employee who runs the program to ensure I was receiving correct information. The PIO would not provide me with the budget amount allocated to the program until I started to make a public records request.

(Published in the Oct. 21, 2016 edition of The HUB)


“Substitute teacher compensation”

Note: I co-wrote this article with a younger student journalist who I was mentoring at the time. I taught him how to request and attend meetings with officials at the district office, access nearby district’s varying substitute pay rates, cite data from credible sources and approach teachers who might hold bias.

(Published  in the Dec. 16, 2016 edition of The HUB and online)

By Meghan Bobrowsky and Albert Hu, Editors–

This news feature is the third in a series of articles that looks into the school district’s use of funds. We try to answer the question: Is this the best use of taxpayer money? In this edition, we investigate substitute teacher daily rates and the current substitute shortage.

According to the most up-to-date documents on respective district websites, the Davis Joint Unified School District pays its day-to-day substitute teachers up to 18 percent less than the average salary of neighboring school districts such as Woodland, Vacaville and Natomas.

These competing districts make attracting and maintaining a sufficient number of substitutes difficult for DJUSD, leading to a recent substitute shortage.

“When the economy was bad, we had lots of substitutes. We rarely had a day where the jobs went unfilled,”said Matt Best, DJUSD Associate Superintendent of Administrative Services.

“Since the economy has turned around, almost all those substitutes have jobs now. Our substitute pool is about the same size, but we’re competing with all the other districts to a greater degree.”

According to Best, DJUSD generally has five or less unfilled substitute positions on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, which escalates to ten vacant substitute positions on Mondays and Fridays.

This lack of substitutes forces teachers, administrators and librarians to fill in the gap.

“I would say probably 95 percent of the time, one-hour [substitute positions] get filled by [teachers] because usually it’s like ‘I gotta go to the doctor or I gotta pick up my kid,’ and you’ll talk to your colleague,” Best said.

This creates a stressful dilemma for teachers.

“There are times when you have to go photocopy something or you have a student that’s requesting something and you have to get it done. So when you’re asked to sub in another class, it can make a teacher’s life more stressful because you want to help out a colleague, but then you’re sacrificing what you need to do,” social studies teacher Fern O’Brien said. “We do it with a smile on our face when necessary, but there’s really a hidden cost there that we end up paying for in our own stress load.”

DJUSD pays its substitutes based on how many days they have worked in the district for the current school year―incentivizing loyalty and commitment to Davis.

After 20 days at schools in DJUSD, substitutes receive a $5 pay raise. Compensation grows by $5 again after 40 days and 80 days of work. An additional $7 hike in the daily raise occurs after 100 days, though Best said that few substitutes reach this step on the pay schedule.

However, even with DJUSD’s salary based on days worked in the school year, a substitute would need to work at least 101 days just to match the Woodland Joint Unified School District’s or Vacaville Unified School District’s flat rate of $130 per day.

According to Best, only three substitutes even come close to working every day in the district―most do it part time. This means that by the time DJUSD substitutes finally earn the same amount as substitutes in other districts, the school year (184 days) would already be close to over―causing a substitute’s daily rate to reset.

As a result, Richard Bruce, a dedicated DJUSD substitute with over 20 years of experience, states that substitutes with financial difficulties prefer to sub in other districts for the higher pay and for the neighborhoods with cheaper rent.

However, Best affirms that there is a “non-monetary value” to subbing at Davis High, due to the more friendly and supportive community in addition to a potential opportunity for future employment as a teacher.

Bruce agrees that Davis is “a good place to start subbing […] because the students are easier to handle.” He believes this is a strong incentive for new substitutes to begin their career in Davis. However, according to Bruce, once these new substitutes gather enough experience from Davis, they will move to another district for the higher pay, making DJUSD the district that “train[s] everyone else’s employees.”

Substitute teachers at Davis High must have a 30 day subbing credential, a teaching credential or be a DJUSD retiree.

The most common substitutes are those with a 30 day credential, which requires a Bachelor’s Degree, passing of the California Basic Educational Skills Test and clean fingerprints, Best said.

Districts stagger their rates of pay for substitutes based on credentials and legacy. In Davis, substitutes with a full teaching credential receive about $10 more per day than substitutes with a 30 day credential. DJUSD retirees are also allotted their own increased daily rate.

However, across the board, neighboring school districts provide a higher rate of pay―regardless of credentials.

The starting rate per day for 30 day credentialed substitutes in Davis is a meager $104; compared to $130 for Woodland and Vacaville, and $120 for Natomas. In Davis, this rate increases to $114 for fully credentialed substitutes; while in Woodland and Vacaville, the pay rises to a flat $150 and $140, respectively.

In Davis, retired DJUSD teachers start with a salary of $136, while in Natomas, retired teachers can earn an extra $25 a day, equating to $145. For retirees in Woodland and Vacaville, their rate rises to $170 and $160, respectively.

Looking forward, Best explains DJUSD’s current plan to make its substitute rate more competitive with neighboring districts.

“[The daily] rate has gone up 2 percent each year just like the [pay for full-time] employees. It didn’t before. We basically got authorization from the board to say if employees get a raise, the sub rates go up also. That was [in] 2014.”

However, according to CNN Money, this 2 percent raise is below the average 3 percent raise that most employees across America receive per year. In fact, it is only just high enough to keep up with America’s inflation rate, which is currently about 1.6 percent, according to U.S. Inflation Calculator.

The HUB was not able to locate the previous rates of pay for substitutes in neighboring districts, and thus was not able to determine if substitutes in other districts experience a yearly pay increase as well.

Is this the best use of taxpayer money? The HUB says:
Yes―properly compensating substitute teachers is essential in making sure schools run as smoothly as possible without placing additional burdens on teachers or other staff. The district should allocate more funds to substitute pay to be more competitive with other districts in order to ensure all substitute positions are filled.

“Athlethics funded through many different outlets”

Note: I teamed up with a three sport athlete to investigate the athletics department budget. We had several meetings with the athletic director, athletic secretary and public information officer to delve into the various pools of money. Afterwards, we broke down the complicated finances for students to understand.

(Published in the Jan. 27, 2017 edition of The HUB and online)

By Meghan Bobrowsky and Willa Moffatt, Editors-in-Chief–

This news feature is the fourth in a series of articles that looks into Davis High’s use of funds. We try to answer the question: Is this the best use of the school’s money? In this edition, we dive into the specifics of the athletic department’s budget.

DHS is home to 60 sports teams; however, each of those teams does not receive an allocated dollar amount from the district, according to Athletic Director Jeff Lorenson.

Instead, the school uses its approximated $70,000—obtained from ASB card sales and collecting money at the entrance at all football, basketball and volleyball games—to finance the hidden costs of the sports. These expenditures include referees, California Interscholastic Federation dues, playoff entry fees and substitutes for teachers who double as coaches.

“There’s a lot of things in a program this size that happen, but people don’t necessarily understand or realize what it takes to support the success of the program outside of putting the students out there with a coach,” Lorenson said.

Prices for officials vary by sport and can cost up to $108 per official for varsity football Section playoffs. Last year, athletics spent $33,541 on officials alone, athletic department secretary Laurie Williams said.

However, the cost can be offset by charging an additional fee at the gate for postseason games. Playoff ticket prices range from $4 for students at home baseball, soccer, softball, track and field and water polo games to $15 for adults at the Wrestling Masters Competition at Stockton Arena.

Athletics is required by the CIF Sac-Joaquin Section to charge a gate at these games and can be fined if they do not comply. Last year’s women’s varsity soccer team opted to pay the $250 fine because it was too difficult to collect a gate on an open field, Lorenson said.

But since women’s and men’s soccer were moved to the winter season this year, charging a gate for all games has become an option as some games are played on the turf field in the Ron and Mary Brown Stadium. However, there is one setback to this plan.

“Our league by law says that if you don’t charge for all of [the games for a particular sport], you can’t charge for any of them because we don’t want to be dialing in, only charging certain teams that we know might have a larger crowd,” Lorenson said.

And since some games are still being played at Yudin Field, charging a gate at all league games is not an option this year.

So how do teams finance their other expenses if not through the district?

Track and field head coach and DHS English teacher Spencer Elliott explains that athletes on the track team—if they are able to—are asked to make a suggested donation of around $185 to the team each year and purchase their own uniforms. This money funds the bus rides to weekday meets, uniforms for team members who cannot afford them and a few of the 12 coaches’ stipends.

In addition, the 200-person team hosts the annual Halden Invitational in mid-April in which they collect a gate from spectators, charge team entry fees from various schools, sell t-shirts and have a concession stand, Elliott said. Last year, the team made almost $10,000 from the track meet.

This sum helped lower last year’s total operational cost of $43,264.18. Elliott planned accordingly for the expenses of prestigious, far-away track meets, and the team account held $553.49 at the close of the season.

The track team nearly breaks even every year, but does not have any extra funds for new equipment to replace worn-out pole vault pits and missing hurdles. This year, a new pole vault pit is needed, which costs around $15,000, Elliott said.

“I’m not sure what to do because I’m not going to ask everyone for $600. What I really want to do is coach, but what I end up doing is running a small business.”

Men’s varsity basketball head coach Dan Gonzalez asks for a suggested donation of $150 from the estimated 15 players each year, but emphasizes that the money is not required to be a part of the team.

The donations cover the uniforms that belong to the team and are loaned out to players, tournament fees, team sweatshirts for the players to keep and the catered end-of-year banquet.

“It’s purely something that parents volunteer. No one is expected to pay a certain amount. Even if they don’t donate, they still get all this stuff,” he said.

Similar to track and field, the basketball team hosts the three-day Les Curry tournament in mid-December every year. This year, the tournament was held Dec. 15-17, included 16 teams and made $3,000 for the basketball program.

The basketball team also receives money from sponsors who pay to have their business advertised on the north wall in the north gym. The ads change depending on the players and parents that are part of the program, Gonzalez said.

“There’s regulars, and some that are new. The sponsor money helps offset [the remaining operational costs],” Gonzalez said.

Lorenson asks each sports team to do one to two fundraisers each season and hopes to find a large scale fundraiser benefitting all teams in the future. He also acknowledges that some teams have an easier time raising money than others.

“If you get 1,000 people showing up to your game, it’s easier to have a spirit sales booth than if there’s only 20 people showing up. I would always encourage our programs to fundraise rather than just ask for money.”

Some assistant coaches are funded through suggested donations while all head coaches are paid for by Measure H, the parcel tax which was passed once again in November. Level I coaches (i.e. varsity football, cross country and varsity tennis) receive $4,298; level II coaches (i.e. varsity swim, varsity golf and varsity lacrosse) receive $2,957 and level III coaches (i.e. football field and junior varsity lacrosse) receive $1,614.

According to Lorenson, the athletic department has ended the school year with a positive balance for the past two years by asking these questions before spending any money: How much does it cost to run an athletic program here? How do we fund it? Are we ending in the red or are we ending in the black?

“That’s our goal: to never end in the red. Obviously if there was a year where all of a sudden there’s a massive amount of either low attendance at games or ASB cards not being sold, it would have a huge effect and there would be areas that we would have to say ‘I’m sorry we can’t fund this,’” Lorenson said.

Is this the best use of school money? The HUB says:
Yes, the athletic department is being responsible by only funding what it can afford; however, the school should make an effort to organize fundraisers for sports teams to lower the cost of the suggested donation that families pay each season, and help in purchasing and repairing sports equipment.

“Budget Reserves”

Note: Here, I worked with the younger journalist, Albert, again. We dove into this section of the budget that neither of us could confidently say we understood beforehand—the rainy day fund. Albert accompanied me to an interview with the Davis Teacher’s Association President, where we asked clarifying questions.

(Published in the Feb. 24 edition of The HUB and online)

By Albert Hu and Meghan Bobrowsky, Editors–

This news feature is the fifth in a series of articles that looks into the Davis Joint Unified School District’s use of funds. We try to answer the question: Is this the best use of taxpayer money? In this edition, we explore DJUSD monetary reserves designated for periods of financial trouble.

California law mandates that school districts hold onto a portion of their annual budget to account for an unexpected disaster or a shortage in funding. For a medium sized school district like Davis, this equates to three percent of the district’s total expenditures. However, the Davis school board has mandated that the reserve be raised to eight percent, which equates to a total “economic uncertainty” fund of $7.1 million.

In times of hardship, the fund allows the district to pay for almost a full month of day-to-day expenses. According to Blair Howard, President of the Davis Teacher’s Association, the fund is at eight percent to ensure job security for DJUSD staff.

“We assume something is going to com[e] up, and we have an interest in making sure that the district is able to weather that because at the end of the day, if they’re going to cut, they’re generally going to cut from [teachers] and that’s going to hurt us whether we take a pay cut or we cut positions,” Howard said.

While Davis’ rainy day fund is more than double the state mandated amount, it is still far below the average 13 percent reserve of similar sized districts in all of California. However, when compared to neighboring districts, DJUSD’s economic uncertainty reserve is higher. At eight percent of the total budget, the reserve towers over Winters Joint Unified School District (4.9 percent), Woodland Joint Unified School District (4.1 percent) and Sacramento City Unified School District (6.3 percent).

This surplus in the rainy day fund has left DJUSD teachers — who are paid far less than neighboring districts — wondering why the extra money isn’t going towards their salaries.

“When you hear that there isn’t money and there’s still a pretty strong reserve, then that sends a different message. For teachers […] as money has come back to the district after the recession, our salaries haven’t kept pace with that at all,” DJUSD Budget Committee member and teacher Dianna Huculak said.

Huculak adds that saving district funds in a reserve could create more problems than protection — if the surplus money isn’t used on teachers, DJUSD quality of education could dwindle due to shortages in staff.

“Of course we want fiscally solvent schools, but one of our interests is how do we attract and also keep our teachers. There’s certain things where we’re unable to hire teachers for positions that are in high demand just because our starting wage isn’t competitive with other areas,” Huculak said.

However, because the rainy day fund is not a constant source of income, it is unfeasible to use the funds to increase teacher salary, according to Michael Hulsizer, Kern County Chief Deputy for Governmental Affairs.

“If the district were to give any raise using those one time funds it would be deficit spending. That would create an enormous problem for the district,” he said.

Is this the best use of taxpayer money? The HUB says:
Yes―maintaining an eight percent reserve for times of hardship is crucial to ensuring financial stability and job security at Davis schools. The district should keep its current $7.1 million reserve constant, but should divert any surplus above that amount towards bonuses for teachers.