It takes “granny nanny” Helen Pomerleau up to 20 minutes to drive her three grandchildren from their home near downtown Woodland to their schools in Davis.
Pomerleau said she follows a circuit, dropping off the oldest granddaughter each morning at Da Vinci Charter Academy in Davis then driving two miles to deliver the younger children to Willett Elementary. She reverses the route for the end-of-day pickup.
It’s a routine followed by hundreds of families in Woodland. Thanks to the dropping birthrate in Davis, the Davis Joint Unified School District has become an education destination.
Homegrown students now make up one of the smallest kindergarten classes in the district in years. That fact is masked, say school consultants, by the nearly 650 mainly elementary students who this year transferred into the Davis district from elsewhere – an increase of 100 students from 2013-14. The district has a total student population of 8,570.
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This year, more than two-thirds of students coming from outside the district were from Woodland and West Sacramento. Scores more come from Winters, Dixon, Vacaville and the Sacramento area.
Without these child commuters, the Davis school district would face reduced enrollment and the accompanying loss of per-student revenue from the state.
“We’ve been lucky that Davis schools attract people who aren’t residents in the community,” said school board President Barbara Archer. “It has helped us keep our ADA revenue and our enrollment.”
The district’s increasing dependence on outside students stems in large part from its steep housing prices. The median home price in Davis is $604,400, considerably higher than the regional average, according to online real estate tracker Zillow. Good schools and a college town atmosphere have created strong demand for housing, but voter-imposed limits on growth in the city have constricted the supply. Affordable housing exists, but not nearly enough to meet the demand from families.
Mike Vergara works at UC Davis. His son and daughter are students in the district. He said he once lived in Davis but moved to Woodland because housing was too expensive.
“I want to come back to Davis because of the schools and because I love it here,” he said. “I can’t afford it at the moment.”
Leaders in both city government and the school district say pressure on the city’s housing supply is likely to get more severe. UC Davis aims to boost undergraduate enrollment by 5,000 students within three years and also increase the population of graduate students, faculty and staff. Older people in Davis also are increasingly choosing to stay in the city when they retire, said Mayor Robb Davis.
“Something has to give,” Davis said. “My answer is greater density. And I’m frustrated, quite frankly, that I continue to get pushback. Everybody agrees we need greater density.” But he said the mantra is, “I just don’t want it in my neighborhood.”
3.8 Percentage of Davis residents who are under age 5
The birthrate slide that fuels arrival of students from outside the Davis district is pronounced.
In 2000 to 2004, average annual births stood at 625 in the district’s two Zip codes: 95616 and 95618. A decade later, the comparable average stood at 497, Scott Torlucci of Davis Demographics in Riverside recently told trustees.
“The in-district enrollment has declined seven out of the last 11 years,” Torlucci said.
7.2 Percentage of Davis residents who were under age 5 in 1970
Over the years, voters in Davis have embraced measures to tightly control development. In 2010, they adopted Measure R, which requires voter approval of any newly proposed urban or residential development on farmland. They have consistently withheld that approval, most recently with the rejection of Nishi Gateway, a business and housing development, on the June 2016 municipal ballot.
The same voters have repeatedly passed parcel taxes to pay for new school programs – a pattern that increases the appeal of the already attractive Davis schools.
In November, voters approved the latest parcel tax, $620 a parcel for eight years to support more than a dozen school programs from math and science to music and drama. The tax is projected to generate about $9.5 million a year for eight years.
Mike Nolan, a former PTA president at Willett Elementary who lives in the district, said he understands why many families can’t afford Davis property values.
“Davis is a victim of it’s own success,” Nolan said. “That’s a conundrum.”
“If we didn’t support our schools, the theory is we’d have lower property values,” he said. “Then more people would move in.”
Parent Lorri Holmstrom, mother of three girls at North Davis Elementary, sees the parcel tax paid by Davis residents as a huge benefit for families, and doesn’t mind that many of the children benefiting come from elsewhere.
“As a native Californian, I’ve seen our arts programs go away and our science programs, physical activities, extracurricular activities go away,” she said as she waited to pick up her daughters from school earlier this month. “Anything that can help get those back are important.
“I don’t begrudge any parent, any mom, doing anything that they can to bring their kids into a better school. That’s what we should all be about.”
There are a number of ways parents outside the Davis district can get their children enrolled, district officials said.
Parents who move away from the district are allowed to keep their children in Davis schools in subsequent years, thanks to state Education Code and district policy. Parents who live outside the district but work inside its boundaries at least 10 hours a week have priority under state law when space is available.
Last in line are families that don’t live or work in Davis. Many end up on waiting lists. There is more space available for elementary school children than for those in grades seven through 12, a reflection of the fact that families tend to stay once their children are enrolled.
Davis isn’t the only district with large numbers of incoming students.
In the Rocklin Unified School District in south Placer County, 815 students this year are attending from outside the district, helping push the enrollment to nearly 11,700, school officials said. About 20 percent of the incoming students have parents with jobs inside district boundaries.
Roger Stock, superintendent, said inter-district transfers “have been a trend in the school district” with a large segment of the students coming from elsewhere in the south county. Planning is underway for a new elementary school in the Whitney Ranch area, he said. And the district recently added capacity to one middle school.
“We don’t recruit,” Stock said. “We just do our best with our kids. That’s the work we’re focused on.”
Staff writer Phillip Reese contributed to this story.