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.