Windsor School District is planning for increased class sizes and significant layoffs in an effort to rein in chronic deficit spending and avoid an anticipated $2.8 million budget shortfall for the upcoming school year.

The precise cuts will depend on labor negotiations and the eventual state budget.

For now, Sonoma County's fourth largest school district intends to issue between 40 to 50 preliminary layoff notices to teachers next week — about the same number issued last year by all 40 Sonoma County school districts combined.

Class sizes in fourth through 12Th. grades would be increased from an average of 28 pupils to 34 students. Kindergarten and first grades will remain at about 24 students per class.

"When you have deficit spending like we have been — $2 million a year — something has to give," Superintendent Tammy Gabel said. "Basically, in a nutshell, you have two choices, cut staff or cut cost of staff."

The layoffs could drop by half because of retirements and factors that dictate which teachers can teach what subjects and grades, Gabel said.

The cuts, approved in part<NO1><NO> Tuesday night and expected to be finalized March 12, are described as placeholders while district officials negotiate with labor groups over salaries, benefit packages and layoffs in an effort to lop $2.8 million from the budget.

The district currently is spending $44.5 million while bringing in $42 million, according to Denise Calvert, deputy superintendent of business services for the county office of education.

Without labor concessions, the cuts will be implemented starting in the fall, Gabel said.

"We are running out of time but hopefully, in the end, the teachers and classified workers can do the right thing to help the district and in the future we can help that good faith later on when times are good. But right now, times are not good," said school board member George Valenzuela.

"We have a good relationship with the unions; it's not antagonistic," he said. "Unions, too, have to work with their members. It's not like they can make a deal overnight."

Jeff Reed, president of the 250-member Windsor teachers union, said teachers are waiting to see what happens with the state budget before making any deals with the district.

"This is a unilateral action on the part of the district to balance its budget," he said. "Our members are feeling their interests would best be served if we wait to conclude an agreement until we know actually how much income is coming to Windsor Unified and we won't know that until the state passes a budget."

All districts in Sonoma County are required to submit interim financial plans to the county Office of Education by March 15 — the same day probationary and tenured teachers must be warned if their jobs are at risk next school year.

Those so-called pink slips can be rescinded by May 15. But school districts that issue the warnings or let them go beyond the May 15 deadline run the risk of losing teachers to other districts.

Pink slip numbers exclude temporary teachers who are notified each year that their spots in the classroom are not guaranteed.

Windsor, one of the few Sonoma County school districts that is not enduring declining enrollment, has relied for years on its reserve fund to weather the state budget crisis, which has cut guaranteed funding between 20 and 22 percent annually.

The passage of Proposition 30 in November allowed some districts to reinstate classroom and professional development days, but Windsor cannot because it remains in a deficit mode. Had Proposition 30 failed, Windsor would have been $1.8 million deeper in a hole, Gabel said.

County education officials for months have been monitoring Windsor's situation and in January accepted an interim spending plan with "serious reservations."

"If they were fully funded by the state, they would be fine," Calvert said. "But they are not being fully funded by the state."

"We have been talking to them, they are working on it with their bargaining units," she said. "Their deficit spending is such that they cannot afford not to make those reductions."

The district returned to smaller class sizes this year after an exodus of 39 kindergarten families in 2012-13 that was blamed on larger classes. Calvert described that decision as a strategy that boosted enrollment but did not work out financially.

"Their enrollment increased by 50 and their staffing increased by 16 (full time equivalent)," she said. "When you increase by 50 students, the most you need is two (teachers) and they increased by 16. They are not financially sustainable decisions."

<NO1><NO>On <NO1><NO>Tuesday, board members dropped home-to-school transportation from the list of potential cuts, thus adding $260,000 annually to the potential deficit.

Gabel said that the configuration of the district's campuses — students are clustered by grades, not according to where they live — makes cuts to the bus service untenable for many families who have children at multiple locations or who don't have reliable transportation.

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)