Bracing herself on the podium Wednesday night, Katy Colbath turned away from the Pittsburg Unified School District board and faced more than 200 colleagues, parents and children in the audience at the city's Civic Center. The divisiveness over the $5.2 million to be cut from the district's budget next year "just kills me," she said.

"Does the California Legislature have any idea what they are putting local school districts through?" asked the English-language-learners coordinator, her voice quaking. "We need to go to Sacramento and let them know what they're doing to us."

Thirty-two people voiced their anger, sadness and frustration over the effects Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget proposal would have on Pittsburg's schools before the board preliminarily approved the cuts, amounting to just less than 7 percent of the district's budget next year.

The cuts -- that Pittsburg, like all California districts, is required to plan for -- would do away with class-size reduction and eliminate 64 teachers, eight vice principals, at least one position at the district office and 14 support staff members, including maintenance workers and secretaries. Whether the cuts ultimately are as deep as planned will depend on whether lawmakers accept the governor's proposal.

The board's decisions this week authorize sending preliminary layoff notices to teachers who may not have jobs with the district this fall.


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Cuts for support staff would take effect July 1. Board members reiterated several times that they hope to undo the decisions they made Wednesday as they receive more information from Sacramento and the state's budget is revised.

Schwarzenegger hopes to help fill an $8 billion hole in the state budget next year by cutting 10 percent from departments across the board and suspending Proposition 98, which ensures a baseline of public funding for schools.

Board members, teachers and parents agreed the worst-case scenario for Pittsburg would have dire effects for students, many pointing to the larger class sizes that would result. First- through third-grade classrooms would swell from about 20 to 30 children, and classrooms at Pittsburg High would grow from an average of 24 students to 30.

Several elementary school teachers said they already are challenged to respond to the students they now have and would be hard-pressed to give the same attention to every student in a larger group. Those in higher grades said they would be dealing with the consequences of the decision later when students reach their grades behind in their learning. One Parkside Elementary School teacher said allowing larger classes would create a "cycle of failure."

Eliminating class-size reduction, said Suzanne Licht, a third-grade teacher at Highlands Elementary, "means which student issues should I ignore?"

Parkside Elementary third-grader Mareiya Gonzales urged the board not to plan for larger classes.

"I want my teachers to remember me as Mareiya, and not No. 32," the 8-year-old said. Her comment drew a standing ovation as she returned to her seat.

Speaker after speaker called for cuts to be made farthest from children, and several wondered aloud why more cuts aren't proposed at the district office.

William Figlietti, a fifth-grade teacher at Highlands Elementary School, called on the board to hold off on its vote and look for other solutions.

"I believe this proposed budget puts students last," he said.

"What's not an alternative is sacrificing our students," he said.

Board members again urged the audience to contact their legislators and let them know the governor's budget proposal is unacceptable. Trustee Vince Ferrante said none of his colleagues joined the board "to be Arnold Schwarzenegger's hatchet man."

After two hours of discussion, the board's vice president, Ruben Rosalez, said, "I want them to feel the sense of urgency that was in this room tonight." Right now, he said, "they're not feeling it."

Trustee Laura Canciamilla acknowledged, "There are no good solutions under what the governor has proposed -- they're all going to hurt us, and we know that." But she reminded everyone that "we're not enemies. We're all trying to work against an outside threat to our community, and we're trying to do it in a way that's legal and rational."

Laurie Phillips covers Pittsburg and Bay Point. Reach her at 925-779-7164 or lphillips@bayareanewsgroup.com.