Denair parents, teachers protest spending at intense meeting

naustin@modbee.comOctober 24, 2013 

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— At a prickly meeting Thursday night, Denair Unified School District parents and teachers protested large legal expenses while the staff is scraping pennies. They challenged changing budget figures and questioned the need to spend common core curriculum dollars on an outside contractor, Fowler-based DataWORKS Educational Research.

Patti Morrissey, a Denair Elementary teacher, said rather than contracting with DataWORKS to help teachers transition into common core, the work could be handled in-house, saving the money.

Over the complaints, trustees approved the $48,000 contract by unanimous vote. “I did do the research. I did talk to teachers. I think it’s a step forward,” board President Robert Hodges said.

The state fiscal advisory board last week declared Denair Unified is in a state of fiscal emergency, said district financial adviser Terri Ryland. She said the process moving toward a state takeover is running “on a parallel track” with negotiations. If the district can reach agreement with its teachers and get its finances in order, the takeover process will not be needed, she said.

On one of those tracks, Denair Unified trustees took the next procedural step toward takeover. The vote was unanimous to seek a waiver of a budget review committee, normally required by the state when a district’s financial plan fails to meet standards. Denair’s budget shows it will end the year $362,000 further in debt.

That number, however, is proving to be a moving target. Teacher layoffs expected to bring the budget back in balance are being challenged and could result in no salary savings and higher legal costs. More teachers resigned over the summer than expected, saving money, but some with specific credentials had to be replaced.

The shifting picture became an issue in negotiations with the Denair Unified Teachers Association. “The numbers change every time,” said union lead negotiator Kelly Beard.

We are very far apart,” interim Superintendent Walt Hanline said. “We do not agree on the numbers. We do not agree on the facts.”

Negotiations are expected to move to fact finding, the next step in the state-mandated procedure to resolve an impasse that can end with agreement or district imposition of an 11 percent cut.

Hanline said the district must reach a deal with its teachers to get its finances back on track. Denair spends 42 percent of its budget on teacher salaries.

“We’re not trying to take advantage of anyone,” board member Carolyn Brown said. But the district will need to take steps to cut its spending.

Denair Unified attendance dropped by 68 students this year, more than predicted. It lost kids steadily as families moved away during the recession and others transferred to larger districts nearby. But the district resisted laying off staff as enrollment fell and state funding declined.

It spent $700,000 more than it made last year and borrowed up to $1.3 million from the Stanislaus County Office of Education to cover its obligations during the last fiscal year.

If Denair Unified cannot trim its costs and start to build back reserves, the state would appoint its own administrator to run the district for the next 20 years. Such a takeover would not happen until spring and at any point until then could be called off, experts said.

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

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