Because of declining enrollment and the state budget crisis, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District school board has cut 8.5 full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers for the 2008-09 school year.

According to a conservative projection, district enrollment is expected to drop 400 students in the 2008-2009 school year alone.

With declining enrollment and the state budget reducing the district’s revenue by 2.5 percent next year, Santa Monica-Malibu’s projected operating deficit for 2008-2009 is $5 million.

But staff is aiming for a target of only half that in cuts because of a “sizable reserve,” says assistant superintendent Mike Matthews.

The board decided at a special March 5th meeting to cut one elementary school music teacher, three English teachers, two history teachers, a math teacher, a physical education teacher and the equivalent of half of the salary of a music teacher — all from secondary schools — starting in the next school year.

The district is required to notify any certificated staff — teachers — that it plans to lay off by March 15th, which was the reason for the special meeting.

District staff is also looking into cutting classified administrators and employees. However, the process for laying them off is different and the school board will not need to take action until May or even June, Matthews said.

Initially, district staff was expecting to cut seven teachers in elementary schools, one in elementary music, and 17 in secondary schools, Matthews said.

“But we believe, based on our experience, between people going on leave, retiring, resigning because they’re moving out of the area — a variety of reasons — we’ll have at least seven teachers in elementary leave, so there’s no need to do any layoffs in elementary,” Matthews said.

He noted that things are trickier when it comes to secondary schools because those teachers have special credentials, for example, in history, science or English.

“I can’t guarantee the turnover we have is going to be in specific areas, so we have to be very careful,” Matthews said, pointing out that the district talked to secondary schools about what areas to reduce in.

Matthews says the district is not cutting more secondary teachers because “I already know of 8.5 of the 17 other secondary teachers who will leave. Some of them may be retiring, some of them may not be reelected, some of them may be resigning because they’re going elsewhere.”

Either way, Matthews says he is “fully assured” that they will meet the necessary teacher reductions naturally.

Harry Keiley, president of the Santa Monica Malibu Certified Teachers Association union, pointed out that “natural attrition the last four or five years has been averaging about 75 teachers a year, who either retire or leave the system or ask to leave,” so more cuts are not necessary.

Of making cuts, Matthews says, “I do not like doing it.”

He noted that in his first three years of teaching — before he became assistant superintendent — he was given a “pink slip” and it didn’t feel good.

“However, we have to be responsible to the public and responsible fiscally and those two don’t match sometimes,” Matthews said. “This is the right thing to do for the district.”

Matthews adds, “I hope we can hire those great people back next year.”