THIS IS a special year for Gary McAdam. After nearly 35 years as an educator, he was elevated to principal of Concord High School, where he finds himself in a position to help shape the minds of nearly 1,700 youngsters.

That's the good news.

The bad news is one of his vice principals was laid off, the school's teaching staff has been reduced by six, class sizes have swelled and the athletic program is in jeopardy.

A battered California economy and a rash of state budget cuts have claimed a long list of victims this year, from Medicaid recipients, to domestic violence programs, to diminished public services. But nowhere has the impact been greater than on the public school system.

"The situation now is just incredible," McAdam said. "This is the worst I've ever seen."

Tom Carman understands only too well. He's the principal at Bel Air Elementary School in Bay Point, with an enrollment of 470 in grades K-5.

His staff dropped from 20 teachers to 15, an administrator was laid off, the instrumental music program is being phased out, after-school study programs lost their funding and the budget for supplies was cut.

"When teachers ask for something," he said, "it's not 'What do you need?' It's 'Can you live without it?'"


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California school administrators have known for some time that this was going to be a challenging year. In February, the state cut spending on school districts and community colleges by about $8 billion. When more cuts were needed to balance the budget, another $6 billion was slashed in July, including cuts made retroactively for the 2008-09 academic year.

The most significant impact has been in class sizes. A typical class at Bel Air Elementary jumped from a maximum of 20 students to 31. At Concord High, class-size limits were elevated to 33 for English studies and 37 for math.

"We have some great teachers here who will provide support," McAdam said, "but when you increase the class size that much, it's quite an adjustment to make."

The problems don't end there.

Students who play football at Concord this year were asked pay for the opportunity, as were students at all other Mt. Diablo district high schools. In addition to the normal $100 transportation fee, every player was expected to ante up $300 to cover equipment and other costs. And no sports program beyond the fall season has been approved by the Mt. Diablo school board.

Tech support for computer upkeep has virtually disappeared. Concord High, which formerly had a full-time technician, now gets by with part-time help. (When McAdam was interviewed, he was still waiting for repairs on his desktop model.) When computers go down at Bel-Air, which formerly had a part-time tech, Carman must submit a service request to the school district. ("They say they'll try to get to us within two weeks," he said.)

More worrisome, today's maintenance issues have been put off until tomorrow. McAdam said that computers in his school's library are running on the Windows 2000 operating system, which Microsoft will not support after spring 2010. That's an open invitation for computer viruses.

"People hear about cuts in education," Carman said, "but they never see them up close or understand them. It's important for them to learn about this. We're pretty nervous about what's going on."

With good reason.

Reach Tom Barnidge at 925-977-8591 or tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.