EMPIRE Schools in this tight-knit community that sits where Santa Fe Avenue dead-ends into Yosemite Boulevard have money problems.
Declining enrollments have been a fact of Empire Union School District life for six years. As children trickled away, funding dribbled out after them.
"I'm always having to be on defense, never on offense. I'm always the linebacker on the 5-yard line getting beat up. I've never once been a quarterback, able to throw the touchdown pass and add money to the music programs, sport programs or academic programs," said incumbent Nick Bavaro, who joined the board in 2000.
"The hardest thing is the budget. The cuts. The constant cuts, year after year," sighed incumbent Patty Shafer, a board member for 28 years.
Red ink is only part of the budget impact, challenger Doug Bentley said. "I'd like to see more mutual respect ... on all sides, even in spite of all the things going on (with the budget), so that everyone feels they're being listened to."
Hardest decisions are cuts
The budget is the top issue in the Empire Union School District board race. One challenger and three incumbents are competing for three seats in the upcoming election. All cited further spending reductions as the most difficult challenge ahead for the board, and that challenge as part of what moved them to run.
"I would like to bring some of the programs back that have been cut," said Bentley, citing wood shop, home economics, foreign languages and especially the Advancement via Individual Determination program he helped start in his 12-year tenure at now-closed Teal Middle School. Bentley is a substitute teacher in Sylvan Union School District and sees the programs still available there.
He said hands-on programs, along with such activities as sports and band, help motivate students. Excellent programs that gain recognition would help bring new students in, he added, or at least keep the approximately 3,200 students Empire has.
Empire will have one more student next year, as Bentley's son joins the ranks of kindergartners.
Stacie Morales, running for re-election after serving for four years, would like to strengthen physical education and sports programs and offer more support to the small district's highly proficient and advanced students.
Bavaro, who runs a benefit consulting company, would love to raise wages. "I'd like to make it right with the people in our district," he said.
"I have such a long (wish) list," Shafer said. "We're just thankful to be able to keep the teachers we have."
In a year of many meetings and tough decisions, closing Teal last spring was cited as the hardest by Morales and Bavaro, who is running for re-election.
"It was like breaking up a family the teachers and the kids," Bavaro said.
Morales called the closure vote "the most heartbreaking moment, adding, "But that's what you do as a board member. You have to make the tough decisions."
Empire swallowed its bitter medicine, Morales said. Other school boards "will be getting a good reality check" this next year.
Bavaro and Morales are looking into ways the district might be able to reopen Teal as a special niche charter school to attract students. For now, the property is leased to a private college prep academy, which "saved a ton of jobs," Morales said.
"Every job we cut, that's a house," she said, explaining that she labored over the leasing decision. "That's how I am. I will not vote unless I've researched it to death and talked to people."
Bentley said the board should look at trimming administrative costs, noting fewer students and teachers require less overhead. He said teachers in the district are dedicated to stay on despite low wages. "I know there are teachers where the classroom budget is so low they have to spend a lot of money of their own," he said.
Shafer, a bookkeeper, said she is focused on keeping the district budget on track and watching the bottom line.
With the state budget in dire straits, candidates expect the next term will be filled with more hard decisions.
"It's the toughest job I've ever had," Morales said.
"Being on a school board is a very difficult thing to do," Bavaro said. "Anyone who runs for school board, no matter what their philosophy is, my hat goes off to them."
Bee staff writer Nanette Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2366.
CANDIDATE: Nick Bavaro
CAREER: Owns Bavaro Benefits, an employee group benefits consulting firm
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in economics, University of the Pacific; master's in public administration, University of Southern California
FAMILY: Wife, Diane, two children
PRIORITIES: Safe school environment; improving compensation for teachers and staff; supporting arts
CANDIDATE: Doug Bentley
CAREER: Teacher in Empire district for 12 years; currently has an online business and substitute teaches for Sylvan Union School District
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree in English from the University of California at San Diego; Single subject English Credential from California State University, Stanislaus
FAMILY: Wife, Leeanne, one son
PRIORITIES: Improve board-teacher relations; restore music, arts and other programs
CANDIDATE: Stacie Morales
CAREER: Works in Stanislaus County Department of Public Works, transit division, background in marketing and graphic design
EDUCATION: Attended Cañada College in Redwood City
FAMILY: Husband, Ken, three children
PRIORITIES: Saving jobs while maintaining fiscal discipline; having no multigrade classes; holding K-3 class size to 20 students
CANDIDATE: Patty Shafer
EDUCATION: Associate degree in accounting from Modesto Junior College
FAMILY: Husband, Vern, three children
PRIORITIES: Ensuring a good education in a safe environment; maintaining district's fiscal solvency