Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Bret Harte Union High School District is sending layoff notices to several staffers this spring, a move approved by its Board of Education Monday.

Superintendent and Principal Mike Chimente said three teachers, possibly four, could lose their jobs if the board finalizes the layoff notices by May 15. Others could see their hours reduced in a cost-saving move by the district.

A total of seven Bret Harte teachers will get full or partial layoff notices this month. Due to rules that favor seniority, newer teachers will generally be affected first.

Subjects that could be affected by the reductions in teaching hours include music, math, social studies, digital photography, physical education, French and home economics.

The biggest cuts would happen in the social studies, math and alternative education departments. Social studies could be reduced by eight class sections next year; math and alternative education could each lose six sections.

Bret Harte may also eliminate a school administrator position. Chimente said he can only name it if the notice is finalized later this year.

Additionally, four support staffers could lose their jobs if the board follows through: A custodian, alternative education principal's secretary, special education aide and career guidance aide. The retiring food service director will not be replaced next year.

Financial uncertainty and declining enrollment are both driving the proposed cuts, Chimente said.

Where most local districts get the lion's share of their funding from the state, Bret Harte qualifies as a "community funded" district. That means its local property tax revenues equal or exceed what it would get from the state government.

Normally an advantage for Bret Harte, the community funding model placed it at the whims of the Calaveras County real estate market during the recession. It has lost about $2.8 million a year in property-tax funding since the downturn began.

State-level funding cuts entailed even more losses over the past few years and amounted to a $548,000 loss this year.

Chimente's fiscal recommendations for the 2013-14 school year assume property tax revenues will fall by 2 percent, an improvement over the originally projected 10 percent decline. Each 1 percent decline still means a loss of approximately $85,000 for Bret Harte.

The district's enrollment has declined more steeply than anticipated, another factor behind the proposed layoffs.

In 2011, Chimente projected that enrollment would top 760. Now he believes it will be closer to 700, in line with a regional trend that has seen the number of public school students fall dramatically.

"We just need to adjust for the total number of students we're serving," he said.

While Bret Harte spent down reserves last year to avoid layoffs, some Bret Harte teachers are asking whether cost reductions might still be achieved in other areas.

English teacher Andrew Reese pointed out that Bret Harte has already cut teaching and support staff positions since the recession began.

"Teachers at Bret Harte are certainly behind doing what is best for students, even when those decisions are tough, but it also seems like teacher and program cuts have been … the most significant target in recent years," Reese said in an email to The Union Democrat.

I just wonder if all other possible cost-saving measures were fully examined before the significant cuts to teaching staff and programs were locked in," he said.

Board of Education member Gail Bunge said she and other trustees decided to send layoff notices with heavy hearts, after months of deliberation.

"We have been hoping for a turnaround in our property taxes, but that has not happened yet," she said. "We hope the community and the staff remember these (notices) are preliminary. If we get some better news by May 15, we may not have to resort to all these cuts."