Although it served as a harsh wake up call, the financial crisis that Denair Unified School District weathered nearly four years ago is slowly becoming a distant memory as Superintendent Aaron Rosander said that the district is not only on solid fiscal footing, but also enhancing its offerings with world language courses, performing and visual arts and a booming dual immersion program. Acknowledging that none of this would be possible without highly qualified educators in the classroom, Rosander said that the district is working to not only restore, but enhance the salaries of teachers who he said “reside in the heartbeat of education.”
“Who we put in front of our students is of paramount importance,” said Rosander. “In Denair, we not only want bright, hard-working teachers, we want thoughtful persons of sound character who will serve as role models for our students.”
Rosander said that DUSD currently has 75.7 full time equivalent teachers dispersed among their four campuses, up from 71.2 full time equivalent teachers in 2015-2016. Approximately five of these positions are new because of enrollment in program growth.
This increase in full time equivalent teachers is positioned to continue as Rosander said the district is currently seeing a “robust number” of candidates showing an interest in working at one of Denair’s schools. He added that the district advertises teacher openings and attends job fairs to attract new teachers.
“We are a small, friendly and safe community with small class sizes and wonderful facilities,” said Rosander. “It’s a great place to work and raise your own kids, something money just can’t buy. Additionally, we invest in our employees, especially our teachers, through outstanding training and support. Our enrollment is growing, as are our programs and revenue. The forecast looks good.”
Rosander said that only three teachers have left the district since the beginning of the school year due to various reasons, including retirement, relocation, or to accept a position with a larger school district. Of these three teachers was former Denair Middle School special education teacher John Heaton, who pleaded no contest to a felony charge of insurance fraud on Jan. 23. Heaton was a former campus monitor for the Stanislaus Union School District, and reported the job injury in November 2015.
“Mr. Heaton worked for DUSD for a very brief period of time,” said Rosander. “He is no longer employed with our school district. The fraud charges do not involve DUSD.”
Rosander said that to fill these three openings, the district will soon be interviewing qualified candidates. In the meantime, fully credentialed teachers will write lesson plans to assist substitutes.
“I would be remiss not to mention that California is currently experiencing a severe teacher shortage,” said Rosander. “As such, all California schools have seen a steep rise in interns and pre-interns over the past few years. Most notably, teachers in the areas of special education, mathematics and science are in very short supply.”
To help retain teachers who are currently at the district and to exemplify its solid financial ground, the district also began to take steps to restore salaries that were cut when the district was on the verge of a State takeover in 2013. At the time, salaries for DUSD employees were reduced by at least 8 percent and up to 12 percent as part of an effort to bring expenses and revenue into alignment.
In November, the Board of Trustees approved a 4 percent salary restoration for certificated, administrative, management and confidential employees retroactive to July 1, 2016, which built upon a 1 percent increase previously approved in May.
Denair Unified Teachers Association president Linda Richardson said in November that while the restoration was a “good step towards restoring the 8 percent pay cut that teachers took three years ago to keep the district financially solvent,” DUSD would need to fully restore salaries and make them competitive with surrounding districts to attract and retain highly qualified teachers.
“As far as having highly qualified teachers in the classroom, it’s a challenge when you can go down to the street and make a substantial amount more. We need to close that gap in pay,” said Richardson.
According to a district salary comparison prepared by California Teachers Association office in Ceres, DUSD is the third lowest paying district in Stanislaus County with a salary of $74,173. Districts in the county that are closest to DUSD in size and demographics such as Waterford Unified School District and Keyes Union School District were listed at $94,965 and $87,849, respectively.
“They want to have qualified teachers here, but they are saying that financially they can’t afford it,” said Richardson. “At some point you have to make that a priority because the most important factor in a child’s education is the teacher standing in front of them. Because what we have right now is a disservice to our students. We want to make sure we have the best we can.
“We never wanted to be on top of the pay scale in the county, we just want to be average,” added Richardson.
Despite the less-than-ideal salary at DUSD, Richardson said that a number of teachers — including herself — have stayed at the district for the students, families and small community.
“There was one teacher who left that told me that she really misses her students here in Denair, that’s why she stayed here as long as she did,” said Richardson. “I considered leaving last year and got really emotional about it. I think it’s the community and the families that makes me very sad to consider leaving, but at the same time it’s getting harder and harder to justify staying.”