West Contra Costa school board members have delayed decisions to eliminate staff and alter the district's class-size reduction program, saying they need more information on the cost-cutting measures before taking a vote.

The board did move forward Wednesday night with a plan to reduce funding for several programs, including elementary school music, to help close a $25.7 million budget gap.

"We don't think any of this is in the best interest of our children," Superintendent Bruce Harter said. "We can always add back if conditions are more favorable, but at this time it's important for us to move forward."

Staff had recommended that the board approve increasing kindergarten and third-grade class sizes from 20 to 28 students for an estimated cost savings of $4 million. But after some discussion, the board tabled the motion to get more information on how increased class sizes would affect students and to address the issue with the teachers union.

"If we move in the direction of increasing class sizes of any amount, I'd like to know what the impact will be," board member Tony Thurmond said.

An increase is subject to bargaining with the United Teachers of Richmond, and union Executive Director Rick Willis threatened the board with legal action if it proceeded without the union's approval.

Staff also had recommended further reducing nonteaching staff — such as typists and school lunch workers — by 36 people, but the board pushed the item to a future meeting after members said they wanted to determine how much savings such layoffs would yield.

The board already has approved sending pink slips to almost 250 employees.

Local 1 of the Public Employees Union, which represents the district's maintenance and clerical workers, staged a small protest before the meeting and held a short rally after the board delayed the layoff decision.

"We scored a partial victory in forcing the board to table the cuts," Supervising Business Agent Richard Leung told the crowd through a bullhorn. "This is not over by a long shot."

The board did, however, slice about $8 million by reducing funding for adult education, music programs at all elementary schools, art programs, instruction and services for the high school exit exam, Gifted and Talented Education and physical education.

The district's budget drama eventually will be tempered by federal stimulus money, which the U.S. Department of Education announced would be available to states and local districts soon.

It's still unclear how much West Contra Costa will receive. District budget chief Sheri Gamba estimates that $7 million will come for special education and $6 million for low-income schools. But the state budget is dependent on May 19 ballot initiatives, and education could face additional cuts later in the spring if the initiatives fail.

Reach Kimberly S. Wetzel at 510-262-2798 or kwetzel@bayareanewsgroup.com.

If you go
  • What: West Contra Costa school board meeting to discuss tabled budget issues
  • When: 7 p.m. Monday
  • Where: DeJean Middle School, 3400 Macdonald Ave., Richmond