Denair Unified pushes ahead with cuts, layoffs

12/14/2012 12:18 AM

12/14/2012 12:24 AM

DENAIR — In an emotional board meeting under the critical eyes of hundreds of parents and community members, the Denair Unified School District board voted Thursday night to push ahead with cuts for this academic year and issue layoff notices for 2013-14.

With unanimous votes, the board ended at the close of this year its independent-study charter school for at-risk students and laid off its 18 hourly teachers. The school will reopen for 2013-14 as Denair Academy, a district alternative school.

The district is considering turning its arts-focused elementary charter into a magnet school, but took no action at Thursday’s meeting.

Trustees also voted unanimously to lay off one Denair High School drama teacher, one high school math teacher, a half-time kindergarten teacher and a junior high physical-education teacher. A fifth anticipated layoff of a district music teacher was spared by a last-minute change by the board.

When Thursday’s meeting began at 7:30 p.m., the board faced a capacity crowd of more than 400 people to start making the painful cuts needed to avoid a state takeover.

In the late hours of the night, the board also:

Unanimously passed a 3.5 percent pay cut to management and a 10 percent cut to Superintendent Ed Parraz. Two board members also volunteered to give up their stipend.

Voted 4-1, with Robert Hodges dissenting, to lay off one full-time supervisor of maintenance, effective Jan. 31.

Unanimously approved the district budget, declaring it “negative,” or unable meet this academic year’s needs — a first in Stanislaus County history.

Earlier in the night, after a long period of public comment, Parraz said, “I heard you. We can turn this district around.” He pledged to take the 10 percent cut to his $120,000 annual salary. And board members Louisa Allen and Julian Wren vowed to give up their stipends. “I don’t feel right taking a stipend when I’m asking others to take cuts,” Wren said.

Trustees heard from dozens of parents and former board members angry at the state of the district’s finances. Retired board member Norma Cordova (1996-2009) got cheers and applause when she called for the board to resign or be recalled. “We the community refuse to go down with your ship,” she said.

Community members asked “how it got messed up this bad” and “how you can ever get us out” of the mess.

Denair Middle School teacher Johanna Hoyt said she warned the board four years ago that it could could not afford new staff being hired.

After 9 p.m., the board closed the public comment period and turned to an hourslong planned agenda. First up was a member of the Natomas Unified School District board, a district that also came close to bankruptcy. Teri Burns laid out what Denair faces as it submits a budget this week that predicts the district will run out of money before the end of this school year. It will lose some local control to a recovery plan overseen by a fiscal analyst.

To pull back from the brink, the trustees voted to lay off the maintenance supervisor and cut 3.5 percent from the salaries of management employees. Unions still have to negotiate any reductions.

Savings from the nonunion employees were estimated at $22,300 for the second half of the school year. The entire staff taking a 3.5 percent cut would save $350,000 over a full year, about what the district needs to save this school year. But analyst Terri Ryland said the half-year cut, if unions agree, still would go a long way toward saving the district from state intervention.

“The (Stanislaus County Office of Education) is focusing on the fund balance at the end of June 2014,” Ryland said by e-mail to The Bee. If the district has cut enough spending to live within its means and have at least the bare minimum of 3 percent reserves by then, she said, overseers would likely give the green light, “knowing they are back on track for the long term.”

Don Gatti, head of the county office business division, said the county would help Denair Unified through this school year’s end if cuts were in place for 2013-14 to bring the district back into the black.

District teachers and support staff expect to be asked to agree to the same cut, negotiators for both unions said. Negotiations with teachers can start after public review of their initial bargaining position. The proposal asks that basic teaching materials be provided.

Slashing materials and supplies to nearly nothing was one of the concerns noted by an outside analyst who reviewed Denair’s finances. Community member Ray Prock Sr. stepped up at the last board meeting to give a teacher $100 to bolster her fund-raising for classroom needs.

The town has always pitched in, recycling, fund-raising and offering a little here, a little there when asked. On Monday, the Denair Lions Club handed Denair Elementary Principal Fawn Oliver a check for $575, a third of their pancake breakfast proceeds, to support after-school computer classes. Denair Fire Department gave its third as well, which Oliver said will add Spanish lessons. The last third went to school busing.

The board meeting was moved to the Denair Middle School Coyote Center to accommodate the expected crowd. Just a few hours before, music coordinator Cathy George sent out reminders the district band would be performing there on Tuesday. “We hope you can join us,” she wrote to parents and community supporters. “We are also planning a concert in the spring, but due to potential cuts to the band program, we will have to see if we will need to cancel that performance or not.”

Parraz has said he expects to propose $710,000 in layoffs for 2013-14, the one thing he and the board most hoped to avoid.

Denair’s imbalance of staff to students stands as the overarching problem.

It has cut assistant principals and, unlike larger districts, most of its administrators wear at least two hats, Parraz said. The district has 48 part-time and 30 full-time support staff, and about 85 teachers.

It hired four more teachers last year, despite having fewer and fewer students. Denair Unified’s regular schools have lost 30 percent of their students over the past five years. The district has a ratio of one teacher per 16 students. By comparison, Sylvan has about 30 children in early grades. Modesto City high schools have nearly 40 kids in an average class.

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

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