Denair Unified School District preparing for teacher strike

naustin@modbee.comJanuary 4, 2014 

    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

— Denair Unified’s labor dispute with its teachers will come to a boil in the days ahead and substitute teachers say they’re being asked if they will cross the picket lines if the union votes to strike.

“We are absolutely preparing for a strike,” said interim Superintendent Walt Hanline via email Saturday. “It’s not a done deal. They called for a strike is what we are hearing.”

“I can tell you there has not been a strike vote,” Denair Unified Teachers Association President Barry Cole said Saturday. “We have surveyed our members, but those results are not even known to our association yet.”

Teachers will be in class Monday to greet students coming back from vacation.

Legally, there can be no strike until after a fact-finding report by a neutral party is released, expected later this week, and the school board takes action.

But an email sent Friday to potentially hundreds of substitute teachers asked if they would be willing to cross the picket line for higher pay if a strike happens. The emails were sent from the Stanislaus County Office of Education, which manages a pool of substitutes for smaller districts in the county, including Denair.

“The Denair Board of Education has authorized the interim superintendent to set an emergency pay rate for substitute teachers at $250 per day for service during a declared labor dispute,” the email says. That is roughly 2.5 times the district’s usual rate.

It asks the temporary teachers to return a survey saying, yes, they will be available, or, no, they would prefer not to substitute in the event of a strike. It gives no dates.

Denair Unified’s financial troubles came to light in fall 2012, when the county office red-flagged its budget as depending on attendance that did not materialize. Since 2007-08, enrollment has dropped 33 percent in district schools, but Denair failed to trim staff as classes thinned.

SCOE lent Denair $1.3 million to keep paychecks from bouncing as 2012-13 wrapped up, an amount that covered cash flow needs as well as the $258,000 it spent beyond revenue and reserves. The district is on track to have a $685,000 deficit by June 30, which would trigger a state takeover.

Part of that deficit comes from teacher salaries that reverted to prerecession highs this year without a contract and legal costs over disputed layoffs. The district settled a contract with its support staff, getting a 7.75 percent salary cut for the year after earlier concessions. It asked its teachers to take an 11 percent cut.

Teachers, however, have said nearly a dozen resignations and retirements should have lowered the district’s costs enough that a 4 percent retroactive cut should be enough.

“We want to do the right thing. But the right thing is not accepting a massive, unnecessary pay cut,” Cole has said.

After negotiations stalled in the summer, a state mediator tried and failed to bring the two sides together. The process moved to fact-finding, where district and the union representatives agree on a neutral financial expert to go over the books and recommend a solution.

Denair Unified trustees have committed to implement whatever the expert recommends in the report, expected to be in negotiators’ hands by week’s end. At this step in the negotiations process, California law allows the district to impose salary cuts and teachers to strike.

With half the fiscal year over, the district’s last, best offer of an 11 percent cut would take 22 percent from paychecks.

Asked at a December board meeting if teachers would consider a strike, Cole said, “We are ready to do whatever we have to do to avoid such a deep cut.”

The board was scheduled to make a final decision Saturday on a new superintendent for the district. The selection will be announced Thursday. The meeting begins at 7 p.m. in the district boardroom, 3460 Lester Road, Denair.

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

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