These "are 'Sophie's Choice' decisions -- do I cut my right arm, or do I cut my left?" Pittsburg Superintendent Barbara Wilson told the board at this week's study session, referencing the 1982 film about a mother forced to choose inside a Nazi concentration camp which of her children should live.
To help fill a $14.5 billion hole in the state budget next year, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed cutting 10 percent from departments across the board and suspending Proposition 98, which ensures a baseline of public funding.
As it shapes its formal budget estimate for next year, Pittsburg has been asked to plan for cuts of $5.2 million, although the outcome could be less drastic.
"I haven't talked to anyone who thinks the worst-case scenario is going to hold," Wilson told the more than 100 staff members and parents who attended the meeting at Pittsburg High School. "But there are going to be cuts -- definitely."
The board took no action Tuesday but plans to make preliminary decisions Feb. 13, its next meeting. It could authorize preliminary layoff notices two weeks later.
As she discussed ways the district could save money, Wilson reiterated several times that ideas presented were being considered not because they aren't valued but because they aren't required. Cutting or not filling 10 vice principal positions, for example, would save about $932,000.
"It's not mandated," Wilson said, "and we do not have a lot of places to go."
Cutting two psychologists and a half-time high school counselor would save about $193,000, she explained. Cutting other classified jobs, including custodians, secretaries and crossing guards, would save about $936,000.
Moving the average class size at Pittsburg High School from 24 to 30 students could lead to a need for 10 fewer teachers, saving as much as $660,000. Without class-size reduction, the district could save more than $900,000.
As it looks to save money, Wilson said, the district also is trying to find new ways of generating income. Some ideas include a parcel tax, about which the public will be polled to gauge its support; charging participation fees for athletics, which the district doesn't now do; and no longer waiving fees charged for facility uses.
Throughout the evening, Wilson, board members, staff members and parents emphasized the need for people to tell their legislators that the proposed budget is unacceptable. California would be spending the least of all 50 states on each of its students, Wilson said.
"They need to hear the personal stories," said Eric Heins of the Pittsburg Education Association, the teachers union. The "pencil-pushers" in Sacramento, he added, cannot fathom what cuts of this magnitude would mean.
"We need you to push that sense of urgency," board member Ruben Rosalez said. "...Please do that, because I don't think that sense of urgency is going to be there down the road."
Colleague Laura Canciamilla reminded those gathered that no one wants to consider how to make such drastic cuts. "As never before," she said, "this is going to be a time when we have to go through this together."
Added board chair Joe Arenivar: "We don't have all the answers, but maybe you do."
After Tuesday's meeting, several people said they weren't surprised by the extent of the cuts proposed and thought the ideas being considered, while drastic, were generally spread fairly throughout the 909-employee district.
"I just think it's a shame," said Pittsburg High School employee Carol Covarrubias, who has worked for the district for 13 years.
Joe Coniglio, president of the classified employees union, said he sympathizes with the board.
"These are not easy decisions to make," he said.
Laurie Phillips covers Pittsburg and Bay Point. Reach her at 925-779-7164 or email@example.com.
Superintendent Barbara Wilson's presentation detailing the impact of the governor's proposed budget on the Pittsburg Unified School District is available on the district's Web site, http://www.pittsburg.k12.ca.us.