Contentious meeting, hard choices greet new Denair Unified trustees

12/13/2013 7:59 PM

12/13/2013 10:54 PM

Denair Unified School District’s new board weathered an emotional first meeting and faces a critical month ahead. Sitting on the opposite side of the board table after being sworn in were new members Sandi Dirkse and Kathi Dunham-Filson. Robert Hodges returned for a second term and was re-elected board president.

Teachers overwhelmingly passed a vote of no confidence this week against interim Superintendent Walt Hanline, union President Barry Cole told board members, asking them to “get rid of Dr. Hanline and get someone who wants to solve the problems.”

Cole, head of the Denair Unified Teachers Association, said, “I just want to teach again. Our teachers just want to teach again. We want the contention to stop.”

It was later revealed that Hanline offered his resignation via email the night before, but the board rejected the offer on a 4-1 vote in a closed-door meeting.

Dirkse cast the dissenting vote. If someone doesn’t want the job, Dirkse said, “I believe we should have honored that and let him go.”

“I do not want to be an obstacle,” Hanline told the packed board room. “This has to do with my style, which is irritating, and I get that.”

The board will interview superintendent candidates and is expected to select a permanent replacement for Hanline by its next regular meeting, Jan. 9.

Also in early January, a recommendation is due from a fact-finding panel convened to weigh in on stalled negotiations with district teachers. Denair Unified’s dire financial situation will lead to a state takeover by June 30 without major cuts that Hanline has said are possible only through a deal with DUTA.

Once the panel reports its findings, the district is free to impose wage cuts unilaterally and teachers could vote to strike. The district’s last, best offer was an 11 percent retroactive cut, which in January would mean roughly 18 percent out of every paycheck.

Trustees pledged to follow the recommendations. “We’ll abide by whatever it is,” said board member John Plett.

Management staff will also agree to the recommendations, Michelle Bush, principal of the district’s independent-study charter school, told the board. “State takeover is not an option,” she said. “Our district can no longer accept the loss of students due to the unsettled positions of the district.”

Cole said the union cannot agree to abide by the report sight unseen, but teachers do want an agreement. “We want to do the right thing, but the right thing is not accepting a massive, unnecessary pay cut,” he said.

Teachers say they do not trust the district’s financial figures, and point as an example to an 11 percent salary cut administrators took this year. Before the cut, administrative salaries were adjusted to be on par with similar districts, with the net result being a 5 percent raise over last year’s pay, by union figures.

Denair’s financial problems stem from declining enrollment. For years, the district failed to cut staff or salaries as classes shrunk, despite a 20 percent drop in funding. Teacher layoffs for this year missed a state deadline and a second round counted on conditions that the district may not have met. The union is contesting both sets of layoffs in court.

“I don’t understand why we’re going through all this,” community member Ray Prock told the board, pointing to high legal costs. “All I see are parents getting more upset with this district and pulling their kids out. It just goes on and on and on.”

In other business, the board voted unanimously for modifications to its two charter schools: Denair Academic Avenues Elementary School and Denair Charter Academy, an independent-study program primarily for at-risk youth.

The most significant changes affect Denair Academic Avenues. Its governance committee was made a largely advisory board, with the Denair Unified board now the lead agency.

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