Brace for the worst and appeal to your elected officials, Antioch school district administrators told a crowd of parents Tuesday evening as they outlined what California's multibillion-dollar budget crisis could mean for local schools.

"Devastating" was how Antioch Unified Superintendent Deborah Sims described the effect that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed budget cuts will have on Antioch campuses -- an estimated $7.6 million hit -- if the public cannot persuade Sacramento to look elsewhere as it tries to eliminate a projected deficit that has climbed to an estimated $16 billion.

Speaking to a crowd of about 100 people in Antioch Middle School's multipurpose room, Sims warned listeners about the state's plans to postpone paying the next installment of attendance-based revenue, to withhold funds earmarked for specific uses and to suspend a 1988 constitutional amendment guaranteeing public schools a minimum level of funding.

The $7.6 million that Antioch Unified School District is trying to slash from next year's spending plan is roughly equivalent to the combined average salaries of 109 teachers, Sims said.

"That's Deer Valley High School," she said.

The school board will not decide exactly where it will cut back until its March 5 meeting and, until then, all expenses in every department are on the table, said chief business official Denise Porterfield.

Human resources, buildings and grounds maintenance, purchasing, clerical support -- "everything has to be looked at," she said.

District administrators also met with more than 100 teachers and classified employees Tuesday to solicit suggestions for ways to reduce spending and are scheduled to meet with the same two groups today.

If the district resorts to layoffs, its 104 temporary teachers -- those filling in for others on leaves of absence -- would be the first to go, said Suzanne Pfeiffer, director of human resources.

After that the district would turn to its 143 probationary teachers, those who either do not have full credentials or who have been on the job fewer than two years.

The district only can lay off tenured teachers if it has already gone through all its temporary and probationary instructors or if a class were cut and the instructor was not qualified to teach another subject.

The district already has taken steps to curb spending: On Feb. 6, it declared a hiring freeze on all open positions as well as a moratorium on all conferences and travel. In addition, district officials established an oversight committee to review every proposed expense exceeding $200.

Running the district costs $10 million to $17 million each month, Porterfield said.

Combine that with the revenue the state is considering withholding and Antioch Unified will be in the hole to the tune of about $14 million in just two years, even though it currently has about three times more in reserves than the 3 percent state-mandated minimum, she said.

The grim news was too much for one mother, who worried about her daughter's long-term prospects if the district decides to eliminate the American Sign Language class she is taking, an elective that fulfills some California universities' foreign language requirement for admission.

"How are these kids expected to get into college?" she asked. "And you have to have a college degree to get a job."

Janice Tate said that a Deer Valley High School counselor told her son that he wouldn't have the option of taking a second elective class this fall, something 14-year-old Jacob was hoping to do so he can earn credits faster and thereby take a lighter academic load as a senior.

"I'm worried about the sports," she added, noting that her son was on the freshman basketball team this year. "What will they be cutting?"

As the meeting wound down, Sims and Porterfield invited listeners to submit their ideas for how the district might save money.

Sims noted that the district is looking into an employee's suggestion that Antioch Unified reduce garbage collection costs by taking refuse to the local landfill itself.

Administrators also urged the audience to sign letters the district had prepared addressed to the governor, Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, Assemblyman Guy Houston, R-San Ramon, and four other lawmakers. The form letters exhort them to protect Proposition 98 funding and come up with a way to stabilize revenue from year to year.

"Pester them!" added board member Joyce Seelinger. "Tell the governor to do something to raise taxes - we'll pay."

Reach Rowena Coetsee at 925-779-7141 or rcoetsee@bayareanewsgroup.com.