CONCORD — The Mt. Diablo school board has not yet decided how it will cut $6.6 million from next year's budget, but it knows what it won't eliminate.

Board members unanimously agreed Tuesday not to jettison three administrative positions held by black employees, after several staff and community members questioned whether their inclusion on a list of potential cuts was racially motivated and insisted the positions were needed.

Board President Gary Eberhart said he initially wanted to explore the idea of reducing top administrative staff to 1998 levels, but he realized the director of classified personnel plays a vital role in the district and it would not be feasible to eliminate the associate superintendent and assistant superintendent for special education because of contractual obligations.

"We have a difficult year and it is time for this board to move forward together for students," Eberhart said after he and newly elected trustee Sherry Whitmarsh took the oath of office. "There really isn't time for us to sit idle and continue with what has gone on in the past."

Before the vote, a representative of the NAACP asked the board to postpone its decision and church community member Neola Crosby expressed concerns over the "seemingly racist actions perpetuated by the newly elected president" of the board.

Because the district receives state funding that pays for ninth-grade class size reduction, the board also unanimously agreed to retain the smaller freshman classes. But the district must bridge a gap between revenues and expenses, because of reduced state funding.

Trustees urged the public to lobby legislators not to cut school revenues midyear, because that would necessitate up to $11 million more in reductions from the 2008-09 budget.

"There's just no way we could do that," said Superintendent Gary McHenry.

Although several students, employees and community members pleaded to save specific positions or programs, a spirit of unity emerged as speakers and board members talked of the need to work together to solve the budget crisis:

  • Mike Noce, president of the Mt. Diablo Education Association teacher's union, said a tentative contract settlement has been reached. Union members will likely vote on ratification Dec. 18.

  • Maintenance and operations union Local 1 President Ron Hansen cautioned against "union-bashing" and said living wages and adequate benefits inspire loyalty among employees.

  • Katie Gaines, president of the Diablo Managers Association representing administrators, praised McHenry for assembling a leadership team that has seen academic strides in the district.

    McHenry outlined possible cuts added to the list, including eliminating the entire general fund contribution of $721,400 to high school athletics. This would require more fundraising or higher fees to keep programs.

    Revenue-generating ideas included seeking a parcel tax and donations from parents. Robert Humphrey, principal of El Dorado Middle School, suggested holding a 24-hour telethon featuring school band performances, with district employees manning the phones.

    The board unanimously approved a "qualified" interim budget report, acknowledging that it is deficit-spending and needs to make budget cuts by the end of February to adopt a positive budget. Next Tuesday, the board expects to begin voting on cuts.

    McHenry pledged to work with employees and the community to attract new revenues.

    "If we don't, we will have to cut positions at every level," he said. "Whatever we reduce, it's going to hurt a person who has a job, a student that needs a service or a district that has dwindling resources."

    Theresa Harrington covers the Mt. Diablo school district. Reach her at 925-945-4764 or tharrington@bayareanewsgroup.com.

    The Mt. Diablo school board will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday in the Northgate High School theater 425 Castle Rock Road in Walnut Creek. Information about budget cuts being considered is at 925-682-8000 ext. 4000 or www.mdusd.k12.ca.us. Click on Board of Education and choose "Agenda for Current Meeting."