Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Sonora Union High School District and other local schools are offering incentives to their oldest teachers to retire.

Fifteen teachers age 55 or older could leave Sonora High at the end of this school year, perhaps to be replaced by less experienced - and therefore less expensive - teachers.

The district's Board of Trustees approved the retirement incentives Tuesday, but each teacher must choose whether or not to accept by March 18. Only those who have worked at least 10 years at Sonora High are eligible.

The incentive comes in the form of annual cash payments intended to help retired teachers pay medical premiums until they turn 65, the cost of which often discourages staff members from retiring, said Sonora High Chief Business Official Kim Burr.

At least five teachers must accept the incentives for the district to realize savings.

If a teacher retired and wasn't replaced by a junior one, the savings to Sonora High could be $90,000 to $100,000 per retiring teacher - a figure that includes retirement contributions and other costs.

Money could still be saved by replacing a senior teacher with a junior one who'd be lower on the district's pay scale. That would save the district at least $40,000 per retiring teacher, Burr said.

The average salary at Sonora High last year was $68,000, according to data from the California Department of Education.

Its highest teacher pay is about $80,000, including stipends for master's degrees and "longevity" at the district.

Sonora High has had reason to worry about its finances over the past several years, given ongoing state budget cuts and declining enrollment.

As of a December financial report, the district labeled its budget as "qualified" - meaning it may not be able to meet its financial obligations within the next two years.

The major concern was the 2014-15 school year, when Burr was projecting a budget over $300,000 in the red.

Recent news that the state will fund certain costs next year helped improve the projections, and Burr anticipates lifting the qualified designation on her next budget report.

But the school and its students have borne the brunt of the recession in several ways. Sonora High's annual budget is about $4 million, or 27 percent, smaller than what it was in 2007.

Since most of the budget went towards staff, that funding gap resulted in teacher layoffs. The district has accomplished further cost savings by opting not to replace retiring teachers.

The retirement of its adult education teacher last year meant what Sonora High Superintendent Mike McCoy described as "setting aside" the district's adult education program, which graduated dozens of students annually.

The program might return in 2013-14, though Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed having community colleges take responsibility for adult education.

Sonora High also opted not to hire a new ceramics teacher this year, but Columbia College is offering a ceramics class on the high school campus.

If enough teachers accept them, the Sonora High retirement incentives could mitigate the need for future layoffs, McCoy said.

Proposition 30, a temporary tax increase that will help fund education, also meant good news for Sonora High.

"We're definitely guardedly optimistic that the recovery is in place," McCoy said. "It's a slow, gentle recovery, but it bodes well for us."

Two other Mother Lode school districts have decided to offer retirement incentives. Calaveras Unified High School District needs to reduce its teaching staff by six, said Superintendent Mark Campbell.

The Calaveras Unified retirement incentive comes in the form of two additional years of credit with the California State Teachers' Retirement System.

Campbell said the loss of teachers wouldn't affect class sizes, since the district's enrollment has declined in recent years.

Bret Harte Union High School District's Board of Trustees moved Monday to offer its own retirement incentives in the form of health benefits or equivalent cash payments.

About six teachers and support staff could be eligible, said Superintendent Mike Chimente.