Budget anxieties linger at the Calaveras Unified School District following teacher pay increases last school year, but school officials say they are optimistic they will have a cooperative and productive year since school began on July 24.

In the past week, the Calaveras Unified School District has been occupied with the transition of incoming freshman students and new leadership at Calaveras High School, Toyon Middle School and Valley Springs Elementary School, district superintendent Mark Campbell said.

“There’s a lot of positive energy that’s being generated with our new hires and people really hungry to move forward,” he said. “I think people are in a better place to have these hard conversations because everyone wants what’s best for kids.”

Those “hard conversations” involve a fiscal recovery plan to cut more than $2 million from the budget over three years to keep the district out of qualified status, or in danger of falling below a 3 percent minimum reserve.

“I would expect many difficult conversations with our bargaining units and with our parents and community. I hope we are able to present data that is irrefutable,” Campbell said. “I don’t want to cut programs, I don’t want to list teachers in any way, shape or form, but we have to have a budget that is approved on the county and state level.”

Following a four-school-day strike by the district teachers union from Oct. 19 through 24, which involved picketing and organizing in front of the district office on the outskirts of Valley Springs and outside of Calaveras High School, the teachers were granted a 4 percent salary increase.

Certificated, classified and management salaries make up about 80 percent of the district’s $30 million budget, about 60 percent of which comes from property taxes and 40 percent from state funding, Campbell said.

The teacher salary increases added about $1 million in expenditures, giving the district a projected $1.8 million deficit over three years.

A final budget submitted to the Calaveras County Department of Education on June 12 was rejected, said Calaveras County Superintendent of Schools Scott Nanik, because the budget proposal showed a shift toward qualified and negative status, indicating the district would not have the money to meet its educational obligations.

The district has until Sept. 8 to submit a revised budget and expense-reduction plan to the county.

“They can’t run out of money, so that doesn’t solve the problem. They have to work together with their bargaining units to come up with creative solutions,” Nanik said.

“We’re going to have to come up with more cuts,” Campbell said. “The county wants more reductions.”

The new contract with teachers mandates a 24-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio in grades kindergarten through third in county schools, Campbell said, but cuts to teaching staff in the higher grade levels may lead to increased class sizes elsewhere.

In its budget reduction plan, the district is also evaluating cuts to teacher’s administration staff and department expenditures, Campbell said.

Lorraine Angel, president of the Calaveras Unified Educators Association and science teacher at Calaveras High School, said the district had a pattern of basing its budgets on certain assumptions, which kept reserve projections low.

Following the strike, eight preliminary layoff notices were issued in February to teachers on the lowest end of the district-wide seniority list, two from Calaveras High School and six from county elementary schools. Seven-and-a-half were rescinded by the end of March due to three retirements from Toyon Middle School, four resignations from Calaveras High School, one district vacancy going unfilled and a half-time layoff remaining in place.

This was just one example of the district adapting to specific budgetary restrictions year after year in order to keep teaching staff in place, she said.

“As a union, we understand we’re not rolling in dough. That’s not where we are. But I don’t think it’s the doom and gloom that is continually projected by the district,” Angel said.

During the strike, district elementary schools were opened for two days after a two-day closure and staffed with substitutes, but Calaveras High School remained closed for the duration.

In the new contract, the 2017-18 teacher salary schedule was amended from a base salary in “Step 1” of $41,100 to a new minimum base salary at $44,171, the 4 percent increase.

The teacher’s union originally proposed a 6.5 percent increase, which the district countered with a 2 percent increase.

The new maximum salary is $89,769, an increase from $82,199. The maximum figures do not include master’s degree or PhD stipends, which can increase the total salary by a few thousand dollars. Two “anniversary” tenure ranges for teachers with more than 12 years of experience in the district were also expanded to four with additional increases at each level.

All school officials agreed that the start of the new school year and the incorporation of new leadership prompted a sense of cooperation throughout the district.

The district has recruited new Calaveras High School Principal Mike Tambini, new Toyon Middle School Principal Matthew Medellin, and new Valley Springs Elementary School Principal Traci Welch.

Both Tambini and Welch were from outside the county, Campbell said, but all three of the new principals represented a “positive, team-oriented student approach.”

“Our main focus is working with teacher leadership to grow our professional development for all teachers,” Campbell said.

Angel said Tambini was already well liked by students, which “is always a good sign for teachers.”

Tambini was leading staff meetings and appeared to be a “teacher advocate,” she said.

“People are feeling positive and excited about moving forward in all the areas we want to move forward in,” she said.

Nanik said the instability of principals countywide — every principal except for one in the county has only one year on the job or was starting their first year — affected the teaching staff from settling into a routine.

“I think it affects education and instruction as far as consistency and building direction and focus for where the school’s heading,” he said. “But no matter what happens at the administration level, they make sure the kids are getting a quality education.”

Nanik said the focus countywide will would continue to be on developing career opportunities for students to improve graduation rates and postsecondary education pathways.

Additionally, Campbell explained that the addition of Educational Services directors Amy Hasselwander, former principal of Toyon Middle School, and Jeff Crane, former principal of Jean Callison Elementary in Vacaville, at the district office was the result of incorporating the director of special education position into their shared role.

The director of special education position was vacated at the end of the previous school year and reclassified as a director of educational services, Campbell said, and the other director of educational services was vacant since 2014.

“We neglected it for too long. There’s a lot of work to be done,” Campbell said. “They’re both coming from being principals of school sites. They have a tremendous background in instructional leadership.”

Calaveras Unified School District has an enrollment of approximately 2,900 students at Calaveras High School, Toyon Middle School, Gold Strike High School, San Andreas Elementary, Railroad Flat Elementary, West Point Elementary, Mokelumne Hill Elementary, Valley Springs Elementary and Jenny Lind Elementary.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or gricapito@uniondemocrat.com . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.