School trustees around our region can learn from the mistakes of the Denair Unified School District board, primarily lessons about postponing painful budget decisions and not taking shrinking enrollment as the serious matter it is.
But we think there are lessons for voters as well, about the problems that can emerge when they choose school board members and other elected officials with such close personal ties to an organization that they don't, won't or can't make hard but necessary decisions.
The Denair board has only five members and at least three worked in the district and-or have family members working in the district. While the Fair Political Practices Commission does not consider this a conflict of interest legally, it surely creates the perception of a conflict as several angry residents stated earlier this month at a long and loud public forum on the district's financial troubles.
At that Dec. 13 meeting, the school board approved some cuts for the rest of this year and more for 2013-14, including closing its charter school and making it an alternative school. It's a start, but not yet enough to assure that the rural district won't end up under the control of the state.
Nonunion employees will be taking pay cuts for the rest of the year; we think that the bargaining units will have to agree to such concessions as well.
While the hard decisions are falling to the current board and it surely deserves much of the blame for the district's current financial dilemma, these problems didn't emerge overnight. The County Office of Education has been warning Denair of its financial vulnerability for two years. And enrollment has been dropping since 2007-08, even with the addition of a charter academy.
Citizens who run for school boards are concerned about the well-being of children. That's essential for the position. But too often, they aren't particularly savvy on finances and ask too few questions about budget issues. And voters seem to prefer candidates who attend spaghetti dinners and school plays, regardless of their expertise as decision makers. School trustees are the overseers of a large organization; their primary job is making policy and budget decisions.
At the mid-December meeting, several people called for heads to roll in Denair, suggesting resignations or a recall. We think it could be easier than that.
The terms of three of the five Denair trustees are up next fall, presenting a fine opportunity for citizens to make changes if they are dissatisfied with how the board has performed. We hope that anyone who is interested in running for the Denair school board next year will start attending meetings next month. Yes, go to the school functions, but just as important, dive into school finances.
That recommendation holds true for prospective school board candidates throughout the region. About half of the school board seats in Stanislaus County will be filled in the November election. The lessons from 2012 in Denair provide a useful heads up as to what's necessary to keep public schools financial stable and secure.