As the economy skids toward recession, school districts across the East Bay and California are rolling out plans for drastic budget cuts that will send pink slips flying.

Pittsburg schools may cut back on sports, psychologists and teachers next school year, school officials said this week. Mt. Diablo school district leaders are preparing to slash $14 million from a $300 million spending plan -- the equivalent of 300 full-time employees in the East Bay's second largest district.

West Contra Costa school district officials face a fiscal crisis of the same magnitude and on Wednesday inaugurated the budget season by eliminating 11 jobs.

"This is the beginning of the bloodletting, not the end," said West Contra Costa school board President Karen Pfeiffer.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed slicing $4.5 billion from the $60 billion education budget in 2008-09. On top of across-the-board reductions, the governor took aim at special education and before- and after-school programs. As part of his plan, he urged suspension of Proposition 98, which sets a baseline level for school funding.

The largely Democratic Legislature could thwart the plan. But if lawmakers do approve the fiscal reforms to fill a $14.5 billion fiscal hole next year, schools will suffer the most crippling cuts in decades.

"This is the biggest hit to school districts since the passage of Prop. 13," said Terry Anderson of School Services of California, a consulting and advocacy group that gives fiscal guidance to school districts around the state.


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Voters approved Proposition 13 in 1978, placing a limit on the amount of taxes local agencies could impose to raise money.

School districts must pass their budgets by June 30 but are required to send notice by March 15 to teachers who could lose their jobs. In order to meet the deadline, many districts have started taking action now.

Mt. Diablo school officials will start a third round of budget cuts on Tuesday, having already axed maintenance, teaching and vice principal positions.

"It's impossible for me to communicate the severe and dire nature of the crisis we're facing," said Paul Strange, Mt. Diablo school board member. "It's staggering."

In Dublin, where schools could see a $1.7 million reduction, committees have started meeting to prioritize needs.

"Our slogan is planning for the worst and hoping for the best," said Denis King, Dublin school board president.

With the state budget pinch, all districts will feel a squeeze. But those with declining enrollment -- Antioch, Mt. Diablo and West Contra Costa, for example -- will bear a heavier burden, said Mary Perry, deputy director of EdSource, a nonpartisan education research firm.

California school districts receive funding largely from the state based on attendance. If state revenues falter, all school districts receive a smaller amount per student from Sacramento. But shrinking districts face two problems: less money per student and a smaller number of students overall.

"It's a double whammy," Perry said.

Even in growing districts such as San Ramon Valley, layoffs seem inevitable. That district has a budget of roughly $200 million but needs to cut an estimated $5.5 million.

"We don't have reserves to that extent," said Mike Bush, San Ramon Valley assistant superintendent of business.

What parents and students in all districts can expect are more crowded classrooms, perhaps fewer counselors and librarians and a heightened threat to art, music and sports, Anderson said.

The focus on math and English makes cuts to what are considered nonessential programs more probable. In an era of school accountability, districts must keep improving test scores in math and English to meet standards under the federal No Child Left Behind law. The two subjects also form the core of the high school exit exam, which students must pass to get a high school diploma.

"Anything else is going to be vulnerable," Anderson said, "even if it's really helpful and valuable to the students."

In tight times, school districts also turn to raising class sizes to save money. More students per classroom means hiring fewer teachers. In the Pittsburg school district, raising class sizes would save nearly $1 million in a year where administrators foresee a $5 million shortfall. 

Although schools can apply for state grants to maintain small class sizes, the grants require districts to pay part of the employment cost. As a result, districts may opt out of the program despite the popularity of smaller class sizes, said Brian Lewis, executive director of the California Association of School Business Officials.

"If you're getting cut at the knees, you have no choice but to go after programs that mean something to people," Lewis said.

The Acalanes Union High School District will attempt to blunt the impact of cuts with donations.

Education foundations and parent club contributions already account for about $1.3 million of the district's budget. Acalanes Superintendent Jim Negri has asked those groups to chip in an additional $1 million to help close a $2.5 million funding gap and help keep counselors, low class sizes and electives.

The district may still need to layoff staff. The human resources department is preparing seniority lists to determine who would lose their jobs first.

"We have to put a lot of employees, students and the public through a lot of anxiety through the next two months," said Chris Learned, Acalanes assistant superintendent for business services.

Shirley Dang covers education. Reach her at 925-977-8418 or sdang@bayareanewsgroup.com.