Despite academic victories, future still looks dire for Denair Unified

naustin@modbee.comSeptember 7, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textNan Austin
    Title: Education reporter
    Coverage areas: K-12 education, Yosemite Community College District
    Bio: Nan Austin has been a copy editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 24 years. She has an economics degree from CSU Stanislaus and previously worked at the Merced Sun-Star and Turlock Journal.
    Recent stories written by Nan
    On Twitter: @nanaustin
    E-mail: naustin@modbee.com

— Dire words from county overseers capped a roller coaster day of joy and hopefulness Friday in the Denair Unified School District.

Financial problems continue to overshadow even the show-stopping accomplishment of a 61-point rise in academic standing for Denair High School. At a noon-hour rally, nine teachers and staff members shaved their heads in tribute to student scores.

While students cheered and cameras clicked, across Lester Street, financial experts and district leaders met to crunch numbers and come to agreement at least on how much the district needs to cut to avoid a state takeover at midyear.

Barry Cole, head of the Denair Unified Teachers Association, said the news was very good, telling teachers a 2 percent to 5 percent cut will be all that's needed. The district was seeking an 11 percent salary cut for teachers, but those are "old numbers," Cole said.

The layoffs of nearly 15 full-time teaching positions, being disputed in court by the union, now amounts to 1.4 positions, Cole said. All the rest have other jobs or have taken leaves for the year, he said. "They're not coming back. I talked to every one of them," he said.

But the evening board meeting foreshadowed a grim future if Denair Unified and its teachers cannot reach agreement.

"I can't tell you how important it is that this community come together and find a local solution," said Don Gatti, deputy superintendent of the Stanislaus County Office of Education.

Gatti said his office is overseeing all expenses of Denair Unified because of $1.3 million in loans made to help the district meet payroll as it burned through available cash last year.

He said any questionable spending can be refused. "That's because you're spending our money, not yours," Gatti said.

Denair Unified's desperate financial situation came to light last fall, when overly optimistic enrollment projections failed to materialize and it became clear the district did not have the money to survive the year. Since then, the board has laid off staff, cut salaries and fired the longtime superintendent. At the start of this school year, early enrollment again came in lower than expected, by 50 students, meaning less revenue than expected.

Later this month, state crisis managers will step in and work with the district, and if the budget still runs red, local legislators will be asked to sponsor legislation that would lead to a state overseer taking control of the district.

Gatti told the board members they should hold off on seeking a new superintendent and chief financial officer until the situation stabilizes, because few qualified applicants would choose to come to a district on the brink of receivership.

After the meeting, however, board President Robert Hodges said he believes the district can come together. "We have a lot of faith in our bargaining units. We'll get it done," he said.

The sentiment was echoed in parking-lot conversations with teachers.

"I grew up in this district and I'm not going to watch the state take over," Cole said. "I have nothing but hope. It's down to when and how much. But it won't be too late. We will work it out in time."

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com or (209) 578-2339, on Twitter @NanAustin or at www.modbee.com/education.

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