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Students in Sonoma County’s largest school district could see larger class sizes and fewer electives offered next school year.

Santa Rosa City Schools board members unanimously approved Wednesday night $7.2 million in spending cuts from the 2018-19 budget. In addition to leaving the equivalent of 20 full-time vacancies unfilled, board members voted to eliminate 27 teaching jobs by boosting the current student-teacher ratio of 20-to-1 by one student.

That small change will save $2.3 million, but will impact class offerings and sizes, district officials say. School administrators will examine class schedules and decide which sections need to be cut.

“We all agree that class size matters and are really committed to keeping that down,” school board president Jenni Klose said. “Staff is really going to be charged in figuring out how to balance our staffing ratio by identifying historically underenrolled classes and making sure that’s where we get our savings.”

Despite Gov. Jerry Brown’s pledge to provide an additional $3 billion to K-12 schools for the coming year, Santa Rosa City Schools is among many districts in the county and state wrestling with deep spending cuts because of declining enrollment and rising employee health care and pension costs. District officials said staffing costs represent about three-quarters of the district’s budget, leaving little room to cut elsewhere.

The October wildfires could further impact districts, which receive state funding based on average daily attendance. The Santa Rosa school district attendance declined by 300 students after the fires. While it received attendance-based funding from the state during the weeks the district closed amid the fires, school officials worry about the long-term impacts.

“This is a time when we have to be really careful and conservative,” Klose said.

Secondary schools likely will feel the greatest impact when it comes to class reductions, said Will Lyon, president of the Santa Rosa Teachers Association, which represents nearly 1,000 educators. He said there’s less flexibility in elementary schools, which also will lose four prep teacher positions.

“It’s going to be a complicated puzzle to figure out,” Lyon said.

On Wednesday, he was the only person in the crowd of about three dozen to address school board members. He urged them to trim the $6.2 million needed to close next year’s budget gap and spare some teacher positions, rather than approving all the spending cut recommendations brought forward by the budget advisory committee and Superintendent Diann Kitamura.

“They cut 10 more teaching jobs than they had to,” Lyon said after the meeting.

Lyon said the cuts undermine efforts to attract and retain talented young teachers to the district. Young teachers, he argued, face the greatest risk of layoffs since the district prioritizes seniority.

District officials said they’ll look at attrition to reduce layoffs. But even with retirements, which average about 30 a year, they still may have to hand out pink slips next month.

The district, however, spared the five home and hospital teachers who work with students unable to attend school because of medical conditions. Those teachers, who teach up to six kids a day, will have to take on extra duties, including working with students in the independent study program.

Steve Mizera, assistant superintendent of student and family services, said that’ll allow the district to expand the program and serve more students.

“We’re trying to create more space because the independent study fills up,” Mizera said.

While the district expects to get a projected $4.2 million in one-time funding from the state, André Bell, assistant superintendent of business services, discouraged the board from using it to retain teachers. He said it would further delay the budget problems.

Kitamura said the district should save the money in its rainy day reserve, which is just over the 3 percent state mandate.

“We have over 1,600 employees that we want to continue to maintain their paychecks and benefits,” she said. “A 3 percent reserve only equates to nine days of payroll should something happen, should cash flow become a problem. That’s a little nerve-racking.”

Last year, the Santa Rosa school district cut $4.5 million from this year’s budget because of higher employee pension costs, lower than expected state funding and errors in past budgets.

Board member Evelyn Anderson said this year’s budget process went more smoothly because of the advisory committee that included teachers, staff, administrators, parents, students and community members. While it was a hard decision to make, she felt more confident because the recommendations brought forward were “thoroughly vetted.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com.

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