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Veteran educator Rhonda Bellmer never thought she'd see the day when students' access to the school library would be considered an "extra."

But when state funding cuts to the Healdsburg West Side District general fund hit 20 percent over four years, the money that was once spent offering all students an hour a week of library and computer lab was sacrificed to pay for an early literacy intervention program that Bellmer said is "essential."

"Every penny is rooted in core programs. When your core program (budget) is cut 20 percent from what it was, technology and library programs are considered enrichment," Bellmer, West Side's superintendent and principal, said. "You are using those dollars to pay for basic things."

The financial woes of West Side are being played out across Sonoma County's 40 elementary and high school districts as about 71,000 students head back to class in the coming weeks.

This week alone, about 60,000 students will return to find larger class sizes, fewer classroom supplies, unkempt grounds, fewer hours in the library and in many cases a shorter school year.

In four communities, students will be changing schools after districts shuttered entire campuses to save money.

Since 2007-'08, state revenue to Sonoma County schools has dropped 18 percent, according to Denise Calvert, assistant superintendent of the county Office of Education.

Factor in cost-of-living adjustments that have historically been included but that have been missing or in the negative in recent years and the loss surges to 25 percent, Calvert said.

"I don't think the public really understands what 20 percent less means," Bellmer said.

The budget travails are putting pressure on schools and staff in both large and small ways, educators said.

At Hidden Valley Elementary in Santa Rosa, well-meaning efforts to keep a tight rein on supply orders left the campus without toilet paper at the end of last school year.

"Toward the end of the year, you have come to the end of your resources," said Principal Patty McCaffrey. "(The custodian) was trying to be really good about dispersing things around and everybody looked around and said, &‘We're out!'"

"The last two weeks of school, we actually had parents donating toilet paper," she said.

Of all the moves districts are making to cut their budgets, the shortened school year is the most damaging, said Carl Wong, superintendent of the Sonoma County Office of Education.

More than half of the county's school districts will cut classroom days, 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 the maximum allowable five days from the standard 180-day calendar.

"That is essentially shortchanging a student's instructional time, which cannot and will not be recaptured in the instructional year. That is what is so disturbing," Wong said. "If anything, we should be going in the opposite direction."

With expectations for meeting state and federal academic targets increasing every year — along with punishments for missing those goals — schoolchildren should be spending more time each day and more days each year in the classroom, Wong said.

Yet when 80-90 percent of a district's budget is typically spent on personnel, cutting paid days is the fastest way to trim expenses. Districts had little choice but to lop days, Wong said.

"They literally exhausted all other cuts away from the classroom," he said.

But away from the classroom does not mean unseen.

"Our weeds are high and our grass is dry," Windsor's superintendent Steve Herrington said of the district's nine campuses.

In three years, Windsor has cut its groundskeeping staff from four full-time employees to one, Herrington said. One maintenance director and district custodians already tasked with classroom maintenance are now pulled into some grounds work, he said.

The district has sliced two classroom days and three professional development days from the schedule. Kindergarten through third-grade class sizes have increased to 23 students from 20, most high school classes have increased by one student and the adult education program no longer exists, he said.

Since 2007, the district has cut $6.2 million from its $40 million operating fund, and officials expect to have to cut an additional $1.5 million in 2011-12.

Parent groups, once tapped to provide the extras, are now being asked to supply the basics.

"In the early years, we had everything," said Tiah-Marie Foley, past president of the Parent Teacher Association at Santa Rosa's Proctor Terrace Elementary and mother of two students on campus.

Two years ago, a literacy coach spent half of every week at the Bryden Lane campus, helping teachers identify ways to improve individual students' academic performance.

Last year, the coach came only one day a week. When the school year starts Tuesday, the literacy coach is expected to spend one-third of one day a week at Proctor, according to principal Stephen Mayer.

Proctor Terrace parents hold three major fundraising efforts yearly to be able to give $500 to every teacher for curriculum enrichment.

Gone are the PTA-supported after-school programs that offered students a chance to learn the arts, take a dance class or build LEGO creations.

The group is currently trying to replace 30 aging computers in the school's computer lab — a three-year project.

"In statewide curriculum you have to have computer lab and computer classes, but we have to buy them because they can't afford it," Foley said.

In the West Side District, parents opted to raise funds to keep kindergarten through third-graders in the library and computer lab a full hour per week. Fourth- through sixth- graders will move to less time with six-week units instead of weekly visits, Bellmer said.

Bellmer worries that parents are being stretched thin, too.

"We are now treating our library as an enrichment program funded through our parents," she said. "What's that going to do to my band, choral, art and PE programs? See what happens? There is a finite amount of money they can earn."

"It's like the domino effect," she said. "It just keeps falling and falling and falling."

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


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