DENAIR -- Small-town loyalty mixed with shock and just plain sadness as the 4,000 residents tried to digest news of their schools' dire finances.
An independent report showing Denair Unified would run out of money before school year's end without immediate cuts was met Wednesday with "disbelief" by teachers, said Barry Cole, president of the Denair Unified Teachers Association. The district needs to cut about $300,000 in the last half of this school year.
"We were told there were hard times, but not to this extent," Cole said after the last of three emergency meetings with members. "Nobody realized it. They're coming up to me and saying, 'Are these numbers right?' "
Cole said the district continued to hire teachers, even as the enrollment numbers fell, and gave Superintendent Ed Parraz a 2 percent raise earlier this year. "We are about the lowest-paid teachers in the county. We've always been willing to keep our schools afloat and sacrificed (pay)."
According to state figures for 2011, Denair teachers make an average of $62,489 per year, below the state average $67,871. Parraz, with the raise, makes $120,000, compared with a state average of $115,400 for superintendents in unified districts with average daily attendance lower than 1,500.
Most teachers raise or pay out of pocket about $500 a year for supplies, Cole said. His eighth-grade science students sell flower bulbs in the fall and raise plants from seed to sell in the spring. He incorporates the tasks into lessons and raises about $600 a year to pay for materials he needs to teach the core course.
Townspeople, too, have heard rumblings that money was tight, but never dreamed it was this bad. "It came as a complete surprise to me. I haven't talked to anybody who knew anything about it," said Jenifer Johnson as she pushed a stroller across the playground separating Denair Elementary, where her son goes to kindergarten, and the Denair Academic Avenues charter school, where her daughter is in second grade.
Johnson said she's sure the district will sort out its financial woes, but wishes there were more money for after-school programs at the charter.
Denair parent Blanca Warda, however, is worried. "My concern is we lose our good teachers. We have phenomenal teachers here, and that is a blessing," she said.
Her concern was echoed by charter Principal Carol Hammond, who said cutting jobs is harder in a small district. "We know whose husband is out of work, who has the new baby and only one income," Hammond said. She said the district cut clerical help and eliminated vice principals to keep teachers.
The town knows them, too. Denair library Branch Manager Karina Mendoza said she remembers her teachers, several of whom are still in town. "It was a really tight-knit community. How many people can say they still talk to their second-grade teacher?" Mendoza said.
At the All About You boutique on Main Street, owner Kathy Green said she does not understand what all the bad news means. Will the state take over? Will the schools close? Assured the board has committed to avoiding both, Green said she understands the wish to save jobs. "I just think it's sad," she said. But she added hopefully, "There are miracles."
At Denair Elementary, Principal Fawn Oliver praised parent club and community fund-raising for helping the district meet daily needs. "They have been there year after year after year, and even with fewer parents, they still manage to come through for us," Oliver said.
The Denair Education Foundation recycles electronics. The Denair Lions raise money for daily school busing by holding pancake breakfasts and organizing the annual Farm and Family Festival.
Festival Chairman Dennis Findley blames the district's money troubles on the state holding back dollars promised to schools the "wall of debt" that includes funding due Denair Unified.
"If the state would pay us what they owe us, there wouldn't be a problem." Findley said, standing in his silk-screening shop surrounded by purple Denair Coyotes shirts.
He said the town will come together to support the schools. "We're in a pinch right now a big pinch."
Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2339.