Denair trustees OK $21 million budget for 2022-23

The Denair Unified School District budget has risen about $6.5 million in just three years, but don’t be fooled. Most of the increase can be attributed to two things – special funding from the state and federal governments related to COVID-19 and generous cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) from the state to make up for money shorted to school districts in pre-pandemic years.

Denair trustees unanimously approved a $21 million budget for the 2022-23 school year at a special meeting Thursday night, an increase of nearly $3 million from last year’s $18.2 million spending plan. The district is carrying over about $2 million in so-called COVID relief funds into the new budget year that can be spent on items such as textbooks, school supplies and technology upgrades.

“It’s a heathy budget, but we’re going to continue to be fiscally conservative,” said Superintendent Terry Metzger.

The 2022-23 budget reflects a second consecutive year of higher-than-average COLAs from California. Last year’s was 5.07% and this year’s is pegged at 5.33%. Some of that reflects the state trying to “catch up” on money it withheld from K-12 schools during leaner economic times; some of it is directly related to the current inflationary pressures that have impacted public agencies, private businesses and individuals across the country.

Still, much of the state funding remains tied directly to daily attendance. Denair, which saw enrollment dip slightly during the pandemic, expects to have 62 students more in the 2022-23 school year. Total enrollment is projected at 1,310.

As with previous budgets, most of the money – $15.4 million in 2022-23 — will go to pay for employee salaries. That includes across-the-board 4% salary increases Denair board members approved for teachers, administrators and all other staff on Thursday night. It also reflects the continued spike in pension contributions the district is legally required to make – 19.10% to the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS) and 25.37% to the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), which represents the non-teaching staff.

Daisy Swearingen, Denair’s director of fiscal services, projects the district will finish the year with a fund balance of $2,590,332. That’s more than $1 million more than the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. In another sign of its fiscal health, the district also projects it will have at least a 4% reserve fund for at least the next three years.

Earlier in the meeting, trustees approved two new programs aimed at better preparing students academically.

The first is called the Expanded Learning Opportunities Program (ELOP). It is a before- and after-school program in which students at all grade levels will receive additional instruction, tutoring and enrichment. When the new school year begins, ELOP will run from 7:30 to 8:25 a.m. and from the end of school (between 2:45 and 3 p.m., depending on the campus) until 4:30 p.m.

Metzger emphasized that ELOP is separate from the district’s childcare program, which runs until 6 p.m., though some students may participate in both.

There is no bus service associated with ELOP, so parents are responsible for getting their children to and from school each day if they elect to participate in ELOP. ELOP signups will begin the week before classes start in August.

The second new program approved by board members Thursday night is Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) at Denair Elementary Charter Academy and Denair Charter Academy. Pre-kindergarten is for students whose fifth birthdays fall from September to early December, making them too young to begin kindergarten in August. Pre-kindergarten is an alternative to state-sponsored pre-school.

Under the new UPK guidelines, the age range for those eligible for the program will be extended by three months in each of the next three years. For instance, students whose fourth birthdays occur from September through February can participate this year. Next year, UPK will add those who turn 4 by the end of May and the following year students whose fourth birthdays are in June, July and August will be added.

Last year, there was one pre-kindergarten class at DECA. This year, Metzger expects there to be two to accommodate an additional 20 or so students. 

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Approved an update to the 2021-24 Local Control and Accountability Plan (LCAP), a strategic document that lays out for parents and the community how the district will spend the millions of dollars it receives each year from the state. Metzger said the district’s vision is to “empower tomorrow’s leaders through exemplary instruction and powerful innovative programs.” The LCAP includes three goals. The first is to provide all students with a foundation for post-secondary success. That means preparing high school graduates to enter a two- or four-year college, or having the skills to go directly to the military, a trade school or another kind of vocational field in order to begin their professional careers. The second goal is to have 80% of students demonstrate literacy (reading, writing and speaking) in all content areas by the end of the 2023-24 school year. And the third goal is to maintain a positive and safe school climate where all students are successful.
  • Said goodbye to and congratulated Linda Covello, the district’s chief business official for the past eight years. Covello was a key figure – along with board members, administrators, and state and county officials – in helping the district overcome a financial crisis that could have led to state takeover in 2014 and 2015. “Thank you for your service,” Metzger told Covello, who is moving out of the area with her husband. “While the last eight years have provided many challenges and successes here in Denair, I truly believe we have made a difference in the lives of students and staff alike and I know you all will continue to do so far into the future,” Covello said.

Denair High valedictorian Jazmine Ramirez reflect on quality of education, academic success

Jazmine Ramirez is the Denair High School Class of 2022 valedictorian thanks to her 4.24 grade-point average. The salutatorians will be Cooper Feldman and Preston Roe, who each compiled a 4.02 GPA over four years.

Graduation is set for Friday night at Jack Lytton Stadium. Gates open at 6:30 p.m. and the ceremony begins at 7 p.m. 

Ramirez recently took time to answer some questions about her high school experience.

Question: Obviously, the Class of 2022 has had a much different educational experience because of the pandemic and a year of school held primarily via distance learning. How do you think that will shape you and your classmates? 

Ramirez: When we returned to in person school, my peers and I felt an appreciation for everything involving education, we were so excited to learn in a “normal” setting. Though the pandemic made a lot of us fall behind, the option to cheat was there and it is evident that many chose to do so. Despite the joy expressed upon return, many of my peers are unable to concentrate for long periods of time and oftentimes feel troubled by the amount of homework, regardless of difficulty. Overall, high school students love the social aspect of learning in a classroom environment, stressed out by our previous norms. Still, we are more willing to adapt, understanding why it may be necessary to do things in a new way. 

Q: What are the key things other students should know about your academic success and how you achieved it?

Ramirez:  I think the most important thing I want people to know about my academic success is my view on it. I don’t think titles like valedictorian or salutatorian hold any real value. It isn’t until you, yourself, choose its meaning. For me, being valedictorian represents my ability to achieve long-term goals as well as my determination and willingness. I’d like to add that it is essential to succeed for yourself. I spent a lot of my time worrying about whether I did enough for this title, but it was all for nothing. In the humblest of tones, my GPA was much higher than those I competed with. Feeling secure in your abilities and trusting yourself is all that matters. 

Q: How much time outside of regular class did you spend studying or doing homework?

Ramirez: Although I cannot pinpoint the exact amount of time I spent doing homework and studying, I’d say it was roughly five to six hours a night. 

Q: Which classes and/or teachers at Denair High had the most influence on you? 

Ramirez: Each and every one of the teachers at DHS goes above and beyond for their students. I look up to Ms. North, my AP literature and AP language teacher. She is someone who pushes her students, encouraging them to take pride in their work and expand upon their skills. She always made me feel important in her class and I knew that she would give her all as she taught us. I also have been greatly influenced by Mr. Cumberland, my freshman year health teacher and yearbook advisor. Actually, it was Mr. Cumberland who motivated me to work toward being valedictorian. He never fails to give amazing advice, proving to me and my peers that life is worth enjoying. Mr. Cumberland is the teacher I strive to be for my future students. 

Q: How many Advanced Placement classes were you able to take? Were you challenged?

Ramirez: I took a total of seven AP classes — two my junior year and five my senior year. I never really felt challenged in any of them until I took my AP statistics class; the other courses I selected came naturally to me, though statistics isn’t my strong suit. I chose this course for its difficulty and I became a better student because of it. I finally understood that I didn’t need to excel in everything; doing my best and appreciating the lessons mattered most. 

Q: What kind of culture of learning exists in your home? What has that meant for your success in high school?

Ramirez: I will be the first person in my family to attend college and because of that, I feel the weight of succeeding. In my home, education isn’t really put in first place, which isn’t necessarily wrong. My parents encouraged me to focus on interpersonal relationships and to care for my mental health, while balancing work and leisure. The pressure I put on myself academically was just that, from myself alone. I was never criticized or punished for my grades. This meant that the success I had in high school was because of how hard I pushed myself, how willing I was to do more. I do have to thank my grandparents for helping me to see the privilege in education. I knew that every day I went to school was a day I added to my success. 

Q: What should members of the community know about the quality of education at Denair High?

Ramirez: The teachers at Denair High School do all they possibly can to see their students succeed. They offer a wide variety of resources, especially to seniors. Educators like Ms. North, Mr. Cumberland and Mr. Allen challenge their students and encourage them to try out new things. 

Q: Outside of class, what kinds of teams, organizations or clubs are you involved in? How important are extracurricular activities in preparing you for college and beyond?

Ramirez: Outside of class, I am editor of the yearbook, vice president of the Environmental Club and a California Scholarship Federation member. Extracurricular activities encourage students to not only give back to their community, but to find passions. For instance, some of my fondest memories from high school center around yearbook. I was able to interact with all sorts of people, learning about their interests and values. Yearbook allowed me to feel connected to my school and encouraged me to continue to learn about those around me, appreciating everyone’s differences. 

Q: What is the right balance for teens busy with school, teams or clubs, and even part-time jobs?

Ramirez: As someone who took five AP classes this year, had a part-time job, school, as well as multiple extracurriculars, it was essential to have excellent time management as well as a willingness to compromise. At times, I had to stay up late to work on an assignment or study on the way to games as I took photos for the yearbook. All in all, students need to find what they value the most, understanding that their choices affect their future. 

Q: What are your college and career plans?

Ramirez: My goal is to attend Stanislaus State as a liberal studies major in order to become an elementary school teacher, while also working at Denair High School as a paraeducator. 

Q: What themes are you going to talk about in your graduation speech?Ramirez: I have been planning my graduation speech for quite some time. I want nothing more than to show appreciation for my family, discussing the importance of support systems and role models. I also incorporate my love for education, emphasizing to my peers the privilege it is to attend school and experience learning in a classroom setting. I make mention of the opportunity I have had to observe the personal development of my peers, having a front-row seat to their growth.

10 retirees, 4 students, superintendent honored in Denair

Thursday night was a time to celebrate at the monthly meeting of the  Denair Unified School District Board of Trustees. Ten retirees – some of whom have worked more than three decades in the district — were honored along with four students and Superintendent Terry Metzger.

The retirees took center stage in front of family, friends and colleagues in the Denair Elementary Charter Academy cafeteria. Each received a crystal clock, a bouquet of flowers from the DHS floral department, sincere thanks for their contributions and warm wishes for a fulfilling retirement.

Together, the retirees have served the district and its 1,200 students for more than 160 years as teachers, attendance clerks and custodians. Some interacted with multiple generations of the same family as students. Recognized were:

  • Janelle Gray, who has taught second grade at DECA for 37 years. “Janelle is funny. She likes to joke around and has as a great sense of humor. She’s very innovative and great with her students,” said Principal Kelly Beard.
  • Patti Morrissey, a DECA teacher for 36 years. “Patti was my mentor teacher,” Beard said. “She took me under her wing when I was starting as a teacher. We were kindred spirits. It was an amazing experience we had. We’re going to miss her sense of humor. She is our musical talent on campus.”
  • John Stavrianoudakis, a popular art teacher at Denair High for 28 years. “True story, I still don’t know how to say Stav’s last name, so he’s Mr. Stav,” said Principal Kara Backman. “We will miss your compassion, your empathy for kids. You are so humble. Kids have learned about you and want to come to school because of you. You’re so valuable in so many things and always a team player for everyone.”
  • Maria Olivas, a former Spanish teacher who became the district’s English Language Development coordinator. “She has been a blessing to our students,” Metzger complimented. “She started so many great things and really helped us connect with all parents, not just Spanish-speaking parents. She always approached her job with a can-do attitude and a smile on her face.”
  • Teresa Winter, a food service worker for 16 years. “Her fierce dedication to the students was obvious in the way she did her meal prep and that she knew every kid,” said Food Services Manager Kim Fuentez. “She was the face of the district during the pandemic because she manned the food distribution line. She represented the best of Denair and Denair food service.”
  • Jeannie Herrington, the attendance clerk at Denair Middle School for 16 years. “She always demonstrated empathy,” said Amanda Silva, a former DMS principal who is now the district’s special education coordinator.
  • David Curnow, a high school custodian for eight years. “If you ask Dave, he’ll get it done,” praised Backman. “Every single staff member and student knows Dave. But if you turn that around, he knows all of them as well. He comes early and stays late. He helps keep DHS safe and we appreciate him so much.”
  • Loretta Blevins, who worked as a special education teacher for seven years. “She’s kind and humble, always willing to do anything for students,” said Silva.
  • Robert LaFountain, a utility worker for five years. “When I took over, I found out how hard it was to keep up with Bob,” said Facilities, Maintenance and Operations Director Mark Hodges. “One minute, he might be mowing the lawn and the next he was cutting down a tree. He always gave his full time to us.”
  • Amanda Storlie, a preschool paraeducator for 3½ years. “She was perfectly fit to be in preschool,” Beard said. “She has a sweet, loving, soft voice and the students really love her.”

Also honored Thursday were four students, all of them seniors at Denair High. Thomas Guzman was given a plaque for being the student representative on the board for the past year while Fernando Quintero, Jazmine Ramirez and Mariana Verduzco were singled out for meeting state standards for bilingual literacy after passing oral and written tests in English and Spanish. They will receive the coveted Seal of Biliteracy on their high school diplomas.

Metzger also was recognized for being named the Association of California School Administrators’ choice as Superintendent of the Year for Region 7, which includes much of Central California. A video that lauded Metzger’s leadership skills during the past two years of the pandemic was shown.

Later in the meeting, trustees demonstrated their appreciation for Metzger by extending her contract through the 2023-24 school year. Her 2022-23 salary will be $176,160, plus a $350 a month car allowance. Metzger has been superintendent since 2108.

Also Thursday, the board heard a report from Metzger about attendance, interdistrict transfers, suspensions and expulsions.

Not surprisingly, COVID impacted attendance figures at the district’s four campuses the past two years. That’s important because Average Daily Attendance (ADA) – which is the percentage of enrolled students who are in class each day – is the primary way the state funds public schools. District finance officials estimate the drop in ADA would have cost Denair $425,000 in the next school year, if the district was not allowed to use the prior year ADA for funding purposes.

All of Denair’s schools have seen fewer students in class this year, especially in December, January and February, when the Delta and Omicron variants of the virus affected kids and teachers. Chronic absences – defined as missing at least 10% of school days – have risen this year to 38% at DECA, 36% at DMS, 36% at DHS and 23% at Denair Charter Academy. Before the pandemic, those numbers ranged from 4% to 11%.

“Those numbers are disappointing, but not surprising,” Metzger told trustees. “We had hundreds of kids in quarantine some weeks. As we look ahead, we’re trying to figure out how to use before- and after-school programs to reach some of those students who have missed so much school.”

There have been 44 students suspended for a day or more this school year, equal to pre-pandemic numbers. There have been no expulsions. Denair High has had 29 suspensions and the middle school 14. Almost all have to do with students being caught vaping, Metzger said.

“We are already addressing vaping in a variety of ways and are working on a plan to deal with it more strategically in the fall,” she said.

Regarding interdistrict transfers, Denair still has more students leaving than transferring in. Metzger said the majority have to do with parents wanting their children to be in other districts because of child-care issues.

This year, the district approved 156 elementary transfers, plus 90 from DMS and 180 from DHS. Those numbers are 103, 52 and 103, respectively, for the 2022-23 school year. Conversely, 94 students have transferred into the district this year and there already are 82 approved for next year.

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Approved a contract for 2022-23 school year with Lozano Smith of Sacramento to be the district’s legal representative. Hourly rates range from $135 for a consultant to $350 for a senior partner.
  • Heard a report from Hodges outlining summer maintenance and facilities plans, including work on a girls bathroom at DMS, landscaping and tree-trimming projects, painting, moving the Coyote Cup of Kindness coffee cart from outside the district office to the high school, and updating the staff lounge and bathroom in the district office.
  • Listened as Metzger described training that will be offered for teachers and staff prior to the next school year.
  • Approved an audit of the district’s financial practices that affirms the district is compliant with the laws it is required to meet.

Committed Coyote program inspires student athletes to become role models

There are 17 student athletes involved in Denair High School’s Committed Coyote program. Some are the best players on their teams; others aren’t. But they all have one thing in common – they are leaders among their peers.

The Committed Coyote program seeks to leverage and amplify that influence to a larger segment of the campus population to underscore some critical health messages aimed at teens – drugs, alcohol and vaping are harmful to academic as well as athletic performance; sleep, hydration and good nutrition are essential for growing and active bodies; and mental health awareness and stress relief play an important part in any teen’s life.

The athletes and their advisor – veteran teacher and coach Darrin Allen – meet daily in Room 204. The students don’t sign up for the class as much as they are nominated by their coaches and teachers or recruited by each other during open lunches held twice a month. Together, they watch and create videos and other social media contact aimed at students or plan events to convince their classmates to embrace the Committed Coyote philosophy about making wise and healthy choices.

“It’s all about being a role model and living to a higher standard. It’s about being a leader and being accountable,” explained Mario Plasencia, a senior basketball standout who was the Most Valuable Player of the Southern League last season and also made MaxPreps’ Division V All-State team. “The whole process is to create advantages you’re going to have the rest of your life.”

Committed Coyote is modeled after a program created by John Underwood, a former international distance runner and coach of many Olympians. He used principles developed by the Navy SEALs to prove his theory that athletic performance can be improved with proper sleep, nutrition, and an alcohol- and drug-free lifestyle.

A few years ago – before the pandemic temporarily closed Denair’s campus and so many others across the country – some former SEALs came to Denair to help introduce the concepts of the program. Their message resonated with Plasencia and others who were among the first to sign up to be Committed Coyotes. And while COVID temporarily impacted their ability to interact in person, the students remained loyal to the program and its objectives.

“Committed Coyote grew stronger through the COVID experience,” said Denair High Principal Kara Backman. “The students allowed a difficult time to be a learning opportunity and used this to capitalize on teaching their peers what they could be doing. This significantly supported our student body’s mental health, physical health and behavioral health. I am very proud of them.”

One of the pillars of the program that most resonated with senior Caitlin Warda was the importance of sleep for teens.

“I try to get eight to 10 hours a night. I need that for the development of my body,” said Warda, who is active in cheerleading, volleyball and softball. She expects to continue to implement the lessons learned as a Committed Coyote when she pursues her education at Cuesta College, where she will play volleyball while studying to be a nurse.

Senior Shaylin Gomes – a member of the volleyball, basketball and track teams in addition to being a cheerleader – has been part of the program for two years. She said her interest was piqued when she heard Allen talk about the important of nutrition and sleep on adolescent bodies. She admits that fatigue is a consistent issue for her because she must rise at 5 a.m. to feed her pigs and goats.

“It’s helped me keep a positive mindset, not get distracted and eat well,” said Gomes, who will attend Fresno State next fall and major in veterinary science. She also was impressed by some of the trainings the students attended where she learned “how drugs and alcohol affect your brain.”

Junior Isaac Martinez is a football, basketball and track team member who was invited by Allen to join the program this year. He learned that concussions affect teens’ brains in ways similar to drugs and alcohol and that sleep is more important than he ever appreciated. He also is looking forward to attending a statewide conference in Anaheim in July to pick up ideas from other high schools who have their own versions of Committed Coyote.

“I’ve been trying to recruit other athletes,” Martinez said. “I tell them it will help them excel.”

During a presentation at the April meeting of the Denair Unified Board of Trustees, the students showed videos they have made and shared some of the other benefits of the program.

  • It helps get your head in the game and stay focused
  • It combats peer pressure
  • It helps you and your team
  • It inspires others to do the same
  • It keeps you motivated

The Committed Coyotes also have made presentations to Denair Middle School students, participated in the anti-drug Red Ribbon Week and attended a countywide conference with like-minded students.

“This is an amazing group of kids,” praised Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger.

Eight of the current Committed Coyotes are seniors who will graduate this month. Allen said he hopes to replace all of them and add a few more student athletes. He has room for as many as 22 in the next school year. To that end, the group already is planning another after-school recruiting event before school ends – something like the football tailgate party they held last fall or the watch party in the Denair gym they organized in March when the boys basketball team was in the NorCal playoffs.

“I know there are other student athletes who would benefit from this program,” Allen said. “It’s all about reinforcing the importance of making good choices. It’s also a great way to re-establish our school community after all we’ve been through with COVID the past two years.”

Denair Unified hires new IT manager

Once, Chue Lee’s dream job was to design video games. But with competition fierce and jobs scarce in that industry, he pivoted to education in 2015 after graduating from college. A succession of increased responsibilities through two Central Valley school districts has led him to Denair, where he has been hired as the district’s new IT manager.

“Chue impressed the interview panel with his enthusiasm, tech knowledge and skills, and his understanding that the tech department is critical to supporting teaching and learning,” said Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger.

Lee arrives in Denair after five years with the Kerman Unified School District near Fresno, where he steadily rose through the IT ranks after being hired in 2017. Before that, he worked in the Merced City School District in the city in which he grew up.

It was Lee’s sister who first got him interested in technology as a career. She was into app development for Apple devices and pushed him to do the same. He attended DeVry University in Pomona,California, graduating in 2015 with a degree in software development with a concentration in web game programming.

He returned to Merced after college, but after six months of not finding opportunity in the video game field, Lee turned to education. He hasn’t looked back since.

One of his strengths, Lee said, is working with administrators and teachers to extract and analyze student test data. In Kerman, which has about 5,500 students, he also developed a program to purge student and staff accounts each year, saving that district about $6,000 a year.

The pandemic put a premium on technology, with students across the country forced to move to distance learning for part of 2020 and 2021. It also put more pressure than ever on IT staffs, who had to make sure teachers and students could stay connected.

“Distance learning was a lot of work,” Lee said. “We had plans for something and all of sudden they would change and we had to rethink our thought process.”

In Denair, he will manage the district’s small IT team, which is responsible for all the tech needs of the 1,200 students, plus the staff, administrators and others who are dependent on computers.

“Basically, everything that requires the IT department,” he said.

Until his job interview, Lee had never been to Denair. All he knew was it is east of Turlock. What he is sure of is that his new job means he will cut his daily commute from his home in Merced in half – from 100 miles roundtrip to Kerman to 50 to and from Denair.

“I’m looking forward to spending less time in the car each day,” Lee said.