The Denair Unified School District Board of Trustees reversed course Thursday night, abandoning plans to seek a parcel tax next year and write a new districtwide charter for all grades.
The decisions came after back-to-back presentations by Superintendent Terry Metzger and Chief Business Officer Linda Covello, who briefed the board and the audience. Trustees began exploring the two concepts earlier this year.
The parcel tax was pitched as a way to restore employee salaries that were slashed by as much as 11% during budget cuts in 2013 and have not been fully reinstated. It would have added $85 to $95 annually to each property owner’s tax bill for no more than five years.
During multiple town hall meetings and conversations with staff, parents and other community members, Metzger came to realize there was not nearly the level of support needed for the parcel tax to pass. It would have required two-thirds approval of those who voted.
“Public support of a parcel tax today does not seem to match the earlier reports” said Metzger, referring to a phone poll of potential voters completed in the spring.
She also cited concern from employees who live in the district and felt it would be unfair for them to be taxed more to increase their own salaries.
In addition, the district would have had to bear the cost of a special election, estimated at up to $50,000.
After the presentation, trustees reaffirmed their commitment to restoring salaries as soon as it is fiscally sustainable. They directed Metzger and Covello to review this year’s budget in an effort to find potential savings that could be applied to pay as well as approach next year’s budget with salary restoration as a priority.
Metzger and board members emphasized that increasing enrollment and attendance are intertwined with salary restoration. Enrolling 20 more students would increase revenue by about $150,000, Covello said. A 1% increase in attendance across the district would be worth about $100,000.
Full salary restoration would cost about $428,000 a year.
The district currently is in salary negotiations with both of its employee unions.
Denair already operates charter schools for elementary, homeschool and independent study students. Extending a charter to the middle and high school campuses was envisioned as a way to allow greater flexibility in programming and teacher assignments across all grade levels.
But serious questions were raised, Metzger told trustees.
One of them involved money. A few months ago, the district believed it would be in line for as much as $1.5 million in federal start-up money. That no longer is certain.
“Without the influx of funding, it would be difficult to build all the programs at one time and attract new students,” Covello said.
“That’s a concern for me,” said Trustee John Plett.
Equally important were worries about whether Denair High School’s six-year accreditation – received just last year – would have to be recertified under a new charter. That is a complicated and time-consuming task for administrators.
Also unclear was whether the high school’s popular 135-student FFA club – a fixture on campus for 58 years – would have to disband and reapply as a new school.
And while a charter was viewed as a potential magnet to attract new students from out of the district, it also made it easier for current students to transfer out, Metzger said.
The bottom line, she believes, is that the district can implement the kinds of forward-thinking, innovative and integrated programs it has discussed under its current structure. For instance, Metzger said the district can extend the popular Spanish/English dual language immersion program now offered at Denair Elementary Charter Academy into middle school without being a charter district.
“Personally, I think we can do what we want to do, but use a different vehicle,” said Board President Ray Prock Jr. He also suggested the district can more aggressively seek state and federal grants to pay for new programs.
“We went into this with good intentions – the charter as well as the parcel tax – along with building good programs,” said Trustee Crystal Sousa.
In other action Thursday, trustees:
- Unanimously agreed to apply for a state Career Technical Education facilities grant to build a farm and technology center. The goal is to boost student skills, especially with agribusiness dominant in this region. The project is estimated to cost $3.9 million; the grant would cover half, with the district using bonds to pay its share. The project would be built on the basketball courts behind the middle school. The farm would have an amphitheater and outdoor classroom, room for livestock and land to grow plants. It could be the site for a farmers market on the weekend. The technology center would have six temperature controlled classrooms and a lab in the middle, providing many opportunities to use the most current technology in the agriculture and natural resources sectors.
- Upheld, in closed session, the expulsion of three students who violated the district’s code of conduct.
- Raised construction fees charged on new homes or commercial buildings built within the district’s boundaries. The fees were raised 43 cents to $3.79 per square foot for new residential developments and increased 7 cents to 61 cents per square foot for new commercial construction. They will become effective on Dec. 10. The state allows districts to raise fees every two years. It has been 3½ years since Denair’s last increase.
- Heard a report about the possibility of reintegrating 13 special education students in grades 7 to 12 who live in the Denair district but now attend Turlock schools. Among the goals are to allow those students to attend mainstream classes, teach them lifelong academic and social skills, and save on the costs of outsourcing. The process begins with the submission of a letter to the Stanislaus County Office of Education.
- Approved formation of a boys volleyball club at Denair High School. If there is enough interest, the club could become a competitive team in time for the spring 2020 season. The club will be led by Christy North, who also coaches the school’s girls team.