Because of declining enrollment in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District — and the state budget crisis — the district is expected to cut 25 of its full-time teachers, as well as classified administrators and employees.

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

“On top of that, the governor’s budget reduces our revenue by 2.5 percent next year,” said assistant superintendent Mike Matthews. “It’s that perfect storm of problems we have coming along.”

As a result of these two factors, the district’s projected operating deficit for 2008-2009 is $5 million.

“We’re spending that much more than our revenue will be,” Matthews said.

If the district chooses to lay off certificated staff — teachers — to lessen the projected deficit, it must notify them by March 15th, Matthews said. That means the school board will have to take action at a special meeting Wednesday, March 5th.

However, it’s a different process for laying off classified administrators and classified employees. The school board would not need to take action until May or even June, Matthews said.

Although there’s a $5 million operating deficit projected for the 2008-2009 school year, staff is aiming for a target of only half that in cuts, Matthews said.

“It makes accounting sense to cut as much as the deficit is, but because of our reserve, I don’t think we have to do that,” Matthews said. “And so our recommendation is that $2.5 million target, which is no small target.”

Matthews noted that the district has a “sizable reserve.” Currently, it has $11.7 million over the three percent reserve that is required.

If the district makes $2.5 million in cuts, “in the ’08-’09 year, we project a reserve of $9.3 million over the three percent reserve,” Matthews said. “In ’09-’10, it goes down to $4.9 million and in ’10-’11, we’re right at that three percent reserve.”

Matthews noted that the district still has some unanticipated costs coming up this year, so those reserves could be lower.

He also noted that 92 percent of every dollar spent by the district goes into personnel.

“So if we’re going to cut, we’re not going to find books and pencils we can cut,” Matthews said. “We have to cut people. That’s not a pleasant topic, but it’s a budget reality.”

District staff is looking to cut 17 full-time-equivalent (FTE) teachers in secondary schools, seven teachers in elementary schools and one teacher in elementary music, Matthews said.

This would save the district about $1.25 million — half of the $2.5 million target. The other half would come from administrative and classified reductions, Matthews said.

“We continue to examine positions and will be making recommendations soon,” he added.

District staff also recommends that John Adams Middle School, which is currently staffed at a 29:1 student-to-teacher ratio, move up to a 30:1 ratio for the 2008-2009 school year.

It also recommends that Will Rogers Learning Community go from a 20:1 ratio in grades four and five to a 25:1 ratio in grades four and five in 2008-2009, Matthews said.

School board member Kelly Pye said she was concerned about increasing class sizes at John Adams Middle School, when dramatic, positive changes have taken place there in such a short time and “there are still achievement issues there. I’ve seen a shift and I hate to break that momentum.”

Several members of the school board recommended looking into the class sizes of Santa Monica Alternative School House (SMASH), which serves kindergarten through eighth grade.

“They’ve had smaller class sizes for some time,” noted school board vice president Jose Escarce.

Another major issue staff is considering would be to drop one of the six “houses” at Santa Monica High School (Samohi), which adopted a house system in 2003.

“Reducing a house makes a lot of logical sense,” Matthews said, noting that Samohi’s enrollment is expected to decrease from 3,300 this year to 2,826 next year. “It does not reduce teaching.

“What it would reduce would be two advisors, a house principal, an admin[istrative] assistant and a community outreach specialist, which is about a $400,000 savings.”

Matthews noted that he met with the Instructional Leadership Group and Samohi Committee On Redesign Efficacy (SCORE) about the implications of making the reduction of one house at Santa Monica High School.

“There’s a lot of discomfort in losing a house,” Matthews said.

He said he and staff understand that it would be difficult, “but we also have a fiscal responsibility to do the right thing in terms of keeping track of the budget so we can maintain the great position we’re in now.”

The majority of the school board members were supportive of the reduction of a house at Santa Monica High School.

“I really would like to speak strongly in favor of reducing to five houses this year,” said Escarce. “It’s clear that this is going to be a disruption. It’s going to be a disruption to teachers, probably to every teacher. And it’ll be a disruption to one-sixth of the students — whichever house it is that’s abolished. On the other hand, this is going to happen. It has to happen.

“We just simply can’t afford it. If it’s going to happen anyway and if the savings are so much more dramatic, then I think enjoying the savings as soon as possible is really a good idea.”

School board member Kathy Wisnicki agreed.

“I think it’s really critical,” she said. “I think we started out with 600 more students at Samohi and now might be the time to reevaluate. That’s a tremendous cost savings without harming the students.”

Harry Keiley, president of the Santa Monica Malibu Certified Teachers Association union, stressed the importance of making cuts “as far away from the classroom as possible.”

“Reductions need to take place throughout the organization,” Keiley said. “We believe that they should begin this year at the administrative level…. It’s simply sharing in the reductions.”

The overwhelming majority of cuts the past two years have been in teaching staff.

Keiley also brought up natural attrition and retirees.

“Natural attrition the last four or five years has been averaging about 75 teachers a year that either retire or leave the system or ask to leave, so those are all variables,” Keiley said. “A lot of balls are juggling in the air.”

Matthews assured Keiley and the school board that, while the process will be difficult for everyone, it will be fair and logical.

Action on teacher reductions will be taken at the special school board meeting Wednesday, March 5th.