More than half of Sonoma County's school districts will cut classroom days from the upcoming school year, and still more have dropped staff development days under financial pressure from California's budget crisis.

Twenty-two districts are reducing instructional time, and 12 of them are cutting five days — the maximum allowed.

Since 2000, the mandatory school year has been 180 classroom days. But the state's budget woes have prompted state officials to allow districts to cut up to five instructional days beginning in 2009-2010. Some districts went further, slicing staff development days that teachers had used for preparation, professional development and collaboration.

Teachers are unpaid for those days, saving money for cash-strapped districts.

The Obama administration has pushed for more time in the classroom, not less, and the effect of lopping up to a week from the school year is unknown, analysts said.

"California gets into these situations that have never been done before," said Michael Kirst, emeritus professor of education and business administration at Stanford University.

A 2007 University of Maryland study found third-graders performed nearly 3 percent lower on state math and reading tests when school was canceled five days in a year because of weather prior to spring standardized testing.

The study also found more than half of schools failing to meet federal benchmarks would have met the targets had schools not been shuttered those five days.

Also at play is the message that reducing the school year sends to the public, Kirst said.

"You cut the days, it sends a clear signal to parents and public about the financial distress," he said. "Often other cuts have been disguised."

Scott Mahoney, superintendent of the Waugh District in Petaluma, said teachers agreed to cut one classroom day and two staff development days but refused to place them midweek, where parents' schedules would be even more disrupted.

"Teachers, not just in our district, but around the state, are frustrated," Mahoney said. "Our parents are so supportive, it doesn't make sense to penalize our parents."

The cuts are expected to save Waugh $40,000, Mahoney said.

"Teachers are essentially donating money to school districts when these cuts occur," he said. "Three days of pay hurts. That is a chunk of money."

In Santa Rosa City Schools, which kicks off the school year Aug. 17, cutting three classroom days is expected to save the district $1.3 million.

The three-day reduction represents a 1.5 percent pay cut for teachers, 1.2 percent for classified employees, 1.65 percent for most district directors and principals and 1.8 percent for superintendents.

California, which educates one out of every eight pupils in the country, is putting itself at a disadvantage by shortening its school year, said Emily Cohen, district policy director for the Washington-based National Council on Teacher Quality.

"The difference that California kids are getting, compared with kids in New York, will add up," she said. "Extending the time is one of the things the Obama administration is pushing."

Most states require a minimum of 180 school days a year, according to the U.S. Education Department. Colorado requires the fewest at 160, and Kansas the most at 186.

Beginning in 1983, California districts were given additional funding if they increased the school year from 175 days to 180. In 2000, 180 days became mandatory.

"Ultimately, it's the students who suffer," Cohen said. "They are the ones who need the instructional time, especially if these are high-needs school districts and high-need students. It's hurting them the most."

The National Council on Teacher Quality also is pushing for what Cohen described as more "professional culture" among teachers, including longer days, more effective professional development and an extended school year.

"The instructional year, it's very short," she said.

California is stepping into the unknown, Kirst said.

"Is this the beginning of a trend that will expand in terms of we are cutting time, or is this a one- and two-year coping mechanism?" he said. "This is a trend to watch."

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