DUSD promotes Swearingen to lead business department

A familiar face who has excelled in her current role soon will be taking on important new duties for the Denair Unified School District.

Daisy Swearingen — who has served as the executive assistant to the superintendent, chief business  official and Board of Trustees the past six years – has been promoted to director of fiscal services, Superintendent Terry Metzger announced Thursday. The move becomes official Feb. 1.

“When I joined the district in 2018, I very quickly saw that Daisy was a valuable asset,” Metzger said. “She is that rare combination of someone who is detail-oriented, yet can keep her eye on the big picture. I am thrilled to have her shift into this new position and am confident that she will do a fantastic job.”

Swearingen has a degree in human resources management and previously worked in operations, finance and management positions for a large supermarket company as well as the City of Manteca before coming to Denair in 2016. In her new role, she will replace Linda Covello, the district’s chief business official. Covello announced last month she will be leaving the district at the end of June to move out of state. The two women will work side by side over the next five months to get Swearingen up to speed on her new responsibilities, an opportunity Swearingen believes will be invaluable.

“I’ll really get to dig into the more technical pieces of the job,” Swearingen said.

Covello said the first order of business will be compiling what is known as the second interim budget report, which is due to the state by March 15 each year. The report quantifies where the district is in relation to its $19 million budget for 2021-22 – how much money has been spent from July through January as well as projections for the final five months of the fiscal year that runs through June.

“This will be our first reporting period together and will give Daisy a good overview of each of

the reports she will need to be familiar with,” Covello explained.

The training period also will give Swearingen time to learn the ins and outs of the district’s financial accounting system; the various pots of money, where funding comes from and what it can be used for; and the reporting requirements to state and county business officials.

Swearingen – with Covello’s assistance — also will take the lead in preparing the district’s 2022-23 budget, which is expected to be about $18 million. The difference in comparison to this year’s budget reflects a reduction in state and federal COVID-relief money the district expects to receive in the next budget cycle, Covello said.

“The technical parts of this job are highly complex, so having Linda and Daisy work together for the remainder of the fiscal year will significantly benefit the district and set Daisy up for success,” Metzger said. 

The difference in a director of fiscal services and a chief business official is a matter of experience, training and certification. Even before she applied for her new role, Swearingen already completed a six-month academy on education finances from the Association of California School Administrators. In February, she will begin a yearlong program with the California Association of Business Officials to receive certification as fiscal services director.

Certification as a chief business official requires two more years of training, which Swearingen intends to pursue. Her new duties also include managing three employees in the business department as well as supporting classified managers in food services, maintenance and technology.

Metzger is confident Swearingen’s skill set, experience and reputation within the district make her the ideal choice to lead the business department.

“Daisy is deeply connected to the district and the Denair community as a whole,” Metzger said. “She is constantly thinking about how to support staff, students and families, and all of our programs. She’s well-liked and respected across the district.”

Pandemic continues to impact Denair students, staff

As the omicron variant of COVID continues to sweep across the country, students and staff in the Denair Unified School District have been affected. At one point last week, the number of people on Denair’s four campuses testing positive for the virus nearly doubled in just one day – from 27 to 52.

That has led to a spike in students and staff having to go into quarantine for at least five days. In Denair and most other districts, substitute teachers also have been at a premium. Outside of the classroom, office staff, food service workers, custodians and administrators have had to do double duty while colleagues recovered.

With the virus so pervasive in the community, the need for rapid testing also has risen. On Thursday, the school district distributed almost 450 test kits to families with children in Denair schools. More of the rapid tests were to be given out to families on Friday between 3:15 and 4:30 p.m. The tests were provided by the state.

“I think it’s important for trustees and the public to know that COVID is impacting our community,” Superintendent Terry Metzger said Thursday night at the month school board meeting. “We’ve been very short-staffed. People have been covering for each other. Really, we are doing the best we can to serve our students and families.”

Office staffing has become such an issue that trustees approved a waiver Thursday night allowing the district to temporarily bring back two employees who retired less than six months ago. Typically, retirees have to wait 180 days before they can return for short-term or part-time assignments.

Metzger said state and local health officials predict that the omicron wave could peak in the next week or so, but she expects that COVID will continue to impact daily school for the foreseeable future. Earlier this week, the California Department of Public Health updated its guidance for schools regarding isolation protocols for students and staff who either test positive for COVID or have been exposed to someone who did. Those protocols are available on the Denair Unified website, but still have left many confused.

Meanwhile, Denair trustees sent a letter to state and local health officials as well as elected officials earlier this month asking for more clarity about COVID-related rules, including the specific metrics that would need to be met to relax mandatory mask requirements. The letter also is available on the district’s website.

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Heard a report about the district’s special education program, which includes 137 students across all grade levels. The district has a psychologist, five teachers, two resource specialists, two speech and language pathologists, and 10 special ed paraprofessionals to work with those students. Denair also has taken back early assessments of potential special ed students from the Stanislaus County Office of Education (SCOE), allowing the district to better get to know those students and their families earlier as well as saving Denair money.
  • Voted 3-0 to amend an agreement with the SCOE to spend an additional $11,500 this year to train teachers. Trustees Kathi Dunham-Filson and Regina Gomes were absent.
  • Approved an overnight gathering — pending COVID conditions at the time – on Jan. 28-29 at Denair Middle School for the Denair FFA Discovery Leadership Conference. The meeting will target the leadership development of middle school FFA Members. Workshops will include team development, agriculture advocation and future middle school event planning.

Despite end of 10-game winning streak, Denair boys still have ambitious goals for basketball season

R.J. Henderson was disappointed but not devastated by Denair’s 55-52 home loss Tuesday night to Mariposa in a matchup of the Southern League’s top two boys basketball teams.

The Coyotes’ coach knows that Denair (12-3) and Mariposa (9-3) clearly are the class of the league, which doesn’t have another team with a record over .500 right now. Henderson assumes that when the two schools next meet Jan. 25 in Mariposa, they likely will be playing to determine whether they share the league title or the Grizzlies keep it all to themselves.

“I still like where we’re at,” said Henderson, whose senior-laden team has won the last two SL championships. “We shot 5-for-16 from the free throw line last night, 5-for-20 on three-pointers and 16-for-43 on two-point shots; we’ve been shooting about 55% on two-pointers. To miss all those shots and still only lose by three? Yeah, the kids are disappointed, but we’ll be all right.”

The loss snapped a 10-game winning streak for Denair, which Henderson said outperformed his expectations during an intentionally grueling pre-season schedule. The Coyotes won the Argonaut Tournament last month, which included a 63-49 victory over a tall and talented Ripon Christian team in the finals. Denair also posted an impressive 57-56 road victory over Bradshaw Christian – a perennial playoff team – and defeated larger schools like McLane of Fresno and Lathrop.

“Bradshaw Christian was big. That kind of set the tone,” said Henderson, adding he would have been satisfied with a 9-5 or even an 8-6 record during preseason. Instead, the Coyotes went 12-2, relying almost exclusively on their “core four” – seniors Mario Plasencia, Cooper Feldman, Connor Leonard and Jack Henderson (the coach’s nephew).

Those four players have played basketball together since junior high and are the primary reason Denair is coming off its first back-to-back Southern League titles in 30 years. The fifth starter is junior Izaihs Plasencia (Mario’s brother). It’s no secret that the Coyotes will go as far as that group takes them this season.

“Those five guys have scored like 95% of our points,” Henderson said. “Long term, I don’t know if that’s a recipe for success, but it’s where we’re at.”

Though the league season has begun, Denair still has two more tough non-conference road games on its schedule the next two Saturdays.

The first is this week at 2 p.m. at Ripon Christian (7-6), which Denair knows will be out for revenge having lost to the Coyotes last month. The next comes a week later at Central Catholic (6-5), another game against a larger school in a hostile environment.

“We treat these non-conference games like a playoff setting,” Henderson explained. “I prefer to play these upper-echelon teams on the road. It will help prepare us for what want to do later.”

The Coyotes’ goals haven’t changed, especially with the success of the past two seasons:

  • Win the league championship.
  • Earn a high Division V playoff seeding with at least one home game and, possibly, a first-round bye. That’s the reason to play a tough non-conference schedule. Beating teams like Bradshaw Christian and Ripon Christian counts when the seeding committee meets.
  • Play a game in March. The only way to do that is to qualify for the NorCal tournament, as Denair two years ago (there were no playoffs last year because of COVID). 

First things first for Denair. Despite Tuesday night’s loss, the Coyotes still are poised to earn a share of the SL crown – if they can return the favor during the rematch at Mariposa in three weeks.

“The effort was there last night,” Henderson said. “Mariposa is almost a mirror image of us. We know their team in and out and they know us. It has developed into a fun rivalry over the last few years. There’s a lot of emotion, but it doesn’t cross over the line. Our kids really want to beat Mariposa.”

Denair Unified will ask state for more guidance regarding mask use, potential vaccination mandate

The Denair Unified School District school board would like some clarity from local and state officials regarding COVID requirements concerning face coverings and, potentially, mandatory vaccinations for students. So would a small but vocal group of parents and community members who attended Thursday night’s board meeting.

In an effort to better anticipate what lies ahead, trustees directed Superintendent Terry Metzger to draft and send a letter to area legislators, the governor, state and local health leaders, and state and local education officials seeking information.

The district’s questions boil down to this:

  • Masks: What are the benchmarks for removing mask mandates from schools? What conditions need to be met to eliminate universal masking in K-12 schools?
  • Vaccines: When will legislators begin to debate mandatory vaccination of students, how will public comment be accepted and will a personal-belief exception be allowed? 

Metzger expects to have a final version of the letter ready for trustees to sign next week. It will be sent soon after and posted on the district’s website.

Masks have been required on all California campuses since some students began returning earlier this year. School districts have no choice in the matter. The rules are established by the California Department of Public Health, Metzger explained to trustees and those in the audience Thursday night. The district’s attorney and insurance carrier also have warned Denair Unified could be in legal jeopardy if it doesn’t follow the state rules.

That didn’t dissuade about a half-dozen speakers – including one tearful student – from pleading with trustees to drop the mask mandate.

“This is about government control and school districts are being held hostage,” said Marie Stucker, whose daughter became emotional when talking about being forced to wear a mask in class. 

Andrea Bennett cast the issue as one of “parental choice.”

“We don’t oppose those who want to wear masks or get a vaccine; we want to make our own choices,” she said.

Any push toward mandatory vaccination of all students – something Gov. Gavin Newsom suggested earlier this fall – clearly was opposed by those in the audience Thursday. Metzger and Board President Ray Prock Jr. cautioned that a vaccine mandate for students could only occur after being debated and voted on in the Legislature, and then signed into law by the governor.

“We expect it to be a legislative process, not an edict from the governor, despite what he said a few months ago,” Metzger said.

Without an urgency declaration by lawmakers, Prock doubted any vaccine mandate could take effect before Jan. 1, 2023.

Metzger said it would up to the Legislature whether to include a personal-belief exception for parents to cite in not vaccinating their children – if and when any mandate would be passed in Sacramento. Such exemptions used to exist for other mandatory vaccinations students must have to enroll in school, but were abolished in 2015, she said.

“We want legislators to consider how a vaccine mandate will affect in-person learning,” Metzger said. “As it stands right now, not having a personal-belief exemption would require students to go to independent study. We know that works for some families, but not for most families.”

The superintendent also said that in the past month, the health community has begun to shift from calling COVID a “pandemic” and begun referring to the virus as “endemic” – meaning, like the common cold and the flu, it’s likely here to stay.

“It means we will be dealing with COVID for a long time,” Metzger said. “We need long-term guidance.”

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Listened to a report from Metzger on the district’s mental health programs, which have been recognized as among the best in the state. The district has four counselors, one psychologist, one full-time and one part-time mental health clinician, and one student assistance specialist on staff. The positions are paid for by a combination of state and local funds, plus partnerships with Legacy Health Endowment in Turlock and the Center for Human Services in Modesto. Metzger said concerns remain about the mental health of some students who have exhibited signs of stress, anxiety, anger and even suicidal thoughts during the pandemic. Social media often exacerbates those feelings, she said. Among other things, the district offered a three-hour workshop for all students last fall and will provide three more hours next semester. Mental health services also are available to teachers and other staff members.
  • Heard the first interim budget report, which revealed that district enrollment is 67 students lower than the 2021-22 budget had projected. Most of that decrease (61 students) is the result of lower attendance at Denair Charter Academy. Fewer students translates into a drop in state funding of about $140,000.
  • Accepted the resignation of Chief Business Official Linda Covello, effective June 30, 2022, at the end of the current school year. Trustees also voted 5-0 to approve a plan to replace the CBO position with a Director of Fiscal Services/Chief Business Officer. Recruiting for that opening will begin in January, with the goal of hiring someone in time for them to cross-train with Covello and help develop the 2022-23 budget before she leaves. The district expects to save $37,000 in salary with the new job classification. 
  • Voted 5-0 to appoint Trustee Ray Prock Jr. to be board president and Trustee Carmen Wilson to be board secretary for the next year. Trustee Regina Gomes was appointed to the Stanislaus County Committee on School District Reorganization.
  • Unanimously approved offering $2,000 bonuses to teachers and staff members who let the district know by January if they intend to retire at the end of this school year. Early notification allows the district to better plan for the next year’s staffing needs, Covello said.

Coyote Cup of Kindness coffee cart recognized by regional magazine for its impact

Destiny Silva is not quite sure exactly what voters in 209 Magazine’s annual readers’ poll were thinking of when they voted the Coyote Cup of Kindness coffee cart run by her Denair High special education students as the second-best community festival or event in 2021, but she’ll gladly take the recognition.

“I was really shocked yet very humbled to learn the news considering we were running up against the Asparagus Festival and the Chocolate Festival, which are two huge events,” admitted Silva, the driving force behind the Coyote Cup of Kindness program when it debuted three years ago.

In reality, Coyote Cup of Kindness finished behind only the Lodi Grape Festival in the voting – a very impressive showing that speaks to the growing popularity of Denair’s program.

The goal of Coyote Cup of Kindness is simple – teaching important life skills to students with intellectual or developmental disabilities who often are dismissed as unemployable. To accomplish that, the students each day staff a coffee cart just outside Denair Unified’s administration office on Lester Road.

Silva began the program in November 2018 with five students. Today, it has grown to 19 students serving coffee, other drinks and snacks – all with a smile and an extra dose of kindness.

How popular has the service become? On a typical day, the students make more than 100 drinks during the afternoon rush alone. In the morning, parents dropping off their children have become regular customers. An app allows teachers and other staff members to place orders remotely; students then deliver them at the times requested.

Clearly, the program has clicked with the public, in person as well as on social media. Coyote Cup of Kindness has its own Facebook page with 785 followers and an Instagram page with 2,313 followers. 

“We are so proud of the students involved in Coyote Cup of Kindness,” said Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger. “The lessons that it teaches are important and long-lasting. And the fact that it has grown in popularity each year says a lot about the support from our community. It’s very rewarding to see its positive impact on our students as well as their customers.”

The Coyote Cup of Kindness cart is open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and Friday from 7 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. It also makes special appearances at Denair High athletic events as well as other community events.