Voters on Tuesday will fill three seats on Denair Unified’s five-member board, choosing among seven vying for the difficult job of bringing the financially troubled district back from the brink of state receivership.
To get back on its financial feet, the district needs to ink a deal with its teachers quickly. Going forward, it needs to raise enrollment, which, candidates said, means bringing back families that left for higher-scoring schools or enticing new students with unique, high-quality programs.
Going for two full-term seats are one incumbent, a mom, a nonprofit administrator, a registered nurse and a technology support specialist. Trustee Louisa Allen is not seeking another term.
The race for the short-term seat, left vacant since the resignation of Julian Wren, is between an alternative education teacher and the sole employee laid off in January from Denair Unified.
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Former Denair maintenance supervisor Joel Sanders, 44, now head of maintenance and operations for the Empire Union district, said that’s “all water under the bridge. Everything turned out wonderful.”
Sanders, a Denair native whose children are Denair High grads, said he’s worked with district sports and parents clubs for years and wants Denair to shine again. “I want to rejuvenate the board and bring people back,” he said, pledging better communication than boards past. “The truthfulness and openness just wasn’t there,” he said.
Facing off against Sanders is teacher and district parent Kathi Dunham-Filson, 45, who wants to move the district to a fresh path. “The new board will have the opportunity to hire a new superintendent, and that takes the district in a direction,” she said. The budget issues will get solved, she said, and the district needs to concentrate on marketing its strengths, like ag and music.
In the race for four-year seats, board president Robert Hodges, 27, is seeking re-election to a second term. Hodges has been working behind the scenes in recent weeks to move forward negotiations with the Denair Unified Teachers Association. The district needs to raise test scores compared to similar schools, he said, and vocational programs could help. “I’d love to see us have an ag magnet (high school),” said Hodges, an almond farmer.
Sandi Dirkse, 41, also an almond farmer, said she wants to see expectations rise for academics, athletics and activities. “We need to stop doing business as usual,” she said. Positions and practices need to be evaluated for efficiency, and elected leaders need to listen to the community, said Dirkse, who has three children in Denair schools. “It feels like we’re kind of hopeless at this point. But Denair should be a place kids want to stay and choose to stay,” she said.
Travis “T.J.” Lake, 37, said the district’s near-insolvency was causing problems “across the board.” Morale is low and good teachers are leaving, he said. “I know there have to be cuts, but they can cut themselves into irrelevancy.”
Lake said his experience as an administrator for a nonprofit working with at-risk youths could help get district finances back in line. “This has been a systemic problem for a while,” he said.
Also running are Regina “Reggie” Gomes, 60, a technology support specialist, and Troy Hirschkorn, 45, a registered nurse. Neither returned a Bee questionnaire or messages seeking an interview.
Denair Unified has been under state pressure to rein in spending for more than a year. It ran out of reserves and is moving toward a state takeover if it cannot get its finances in line, which requires getting salary concessions from its teachers. Negotiations reached an impasse several months ago and now await a fact-finding board’s recommendation, expected in December.
The state fiscal advisory board last month declared Denair Unified to be in a state of fiscal emergency and is moving toward a state takeover by June. The district has an interim administration in place after the negotiated removal of its former superintendent and retirement of its chief financial officer.