Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy, left, president of the United Teachers of Richmond union, is flanked by other union representatives as he speaks to the West Contra Costa school board about budget cuts on Dec. 11, 2019. (Photo by Theresa Harrington)

Laying off 250 teachers and increasing class sizes are among the potentially unavoidable budget-cutting options facing West Contra Costa Unified in the San Francisco Bay Area.

To come up with cuts totaling $32 million for 2020-21, “layoffs may be an unavoidable part of the solution,” said Superintendent Matthew Duffy in a recent budget update, adding that cuts to central office administrators “sadly will be severe.”

In a message to the community that includes Richmond and surrounding areas, Duffy wrote: “All of the reductions that will be made are painful and will in some way change the way this district provides services. As we tackle this problem and search for solutions, I want you to know that we are keenly aware of the potential impact these decisions will have on the programs and services the district provides to students and families.”

The district and teachers union met Feb. 5 to negotiate the teacher cuts, as well as alternative cost-cutting options, which are expected to save $16 million.

“They have indicated that if we don’t come to some sort of agreement, they will be laying off 250 members and that doesn’t include other (non-teaching) staff,” said Demetrio Gonzalez-Hoy, president of the United Teachers of Richmond union. “So, we believe they could actually layoff about 400 employees.”

In addition to the teacher layoffs, the district proposes other cuts: $6 million in contracts, $2 million in school site funds, $2 million by eliminating the positions of 10 high-level administrators, and negotiating the remaining $6 million with its three other unions that represent non-teaching workers such as instructional assistants, as well as supervisors and administrators.

The district needs to make the cuts to balance its budget in the wake of ballooning deficits that the district has been grappling with since June.

“It is important for the community to know that the central office will sacrifice enormously in order to help balance our budget,” Duffy said, explaining that these reductions are being made “to keep cuts away from the classrooms.”

However, classrooms are also expected to be deeply affected, said Gonzalez-Hoy. He and officials from the district’s other unions are trying to hammer out one-year agreements with the district for cuts, in the hopes that they could be reinstated the following year.

Expressing shock and dismay, teachers union leaders said they did not agree with anything the district laid out in its initial proposal, which included the elimination of stipends for teachers who attend special education and other extra meetings, and a school wide class-size average of 28, with an average of 34 in grades seventh-eighth, 39 in secondary core classes and 55 in physical education and some performing arts courses. The district also proposed increasing counselor loads to 700 students to eliminate about 16 counselor positions and eliminating stipends for special credentials and degrees, as well as for leading departments or training.

“The class sizes they were proposing were egregious,” Gonzalez-Hoy said. “We haven’t had them that high in over 16 years.”

To emphasize the union’s priorities and concerns, its site rep council — which includes representatives from each of the district’s 55 schools — adopted a resolution that blamed the budget problem on “gross fiscal mismanagement” of funds that it predicted would disproportionately affect students of color, English learners and special education students and teachers, “consequently intensifying structural racism on historically targeted communities and exacerbating social justice, the opportunity gap and racial wealth gap.”

Tony Wold, the district’s associate superintendent for business services, said he is optimistic that the district will be able to come up with cuts collaboratively with the unions. He also said no special education services will be cut.

“These cuts will hurt,” he said. “But we need to make them. We need to move forward.”

Besides the teachers union, Wold is trying to negotiate cuts of $2 million with the Teamsters Union that represents non-teaching positions such as instructional assistants, $1.25 million with the School Supervisors Association that represents managers who do not oversee teachers, and $3.25 million with the West Contra Costa Administrators Association that represents principals and other administrators who oversee educational programs.

The board expects to vote on the first $8 million in cuts Feb. 12 and to finalize cuts by Feb. 26 or March 11, before it issues preliminary layoff notices to teachers and certificated management by March 15. In an effort to reduce the number of layoffs, the district is offering a $2,000 bonus to all permanent certificated union employees and $1,500 to all non-teaching union employees who notify it by Feb. 14 if they intend to resign or retire at the end of the school year.

If the unions do not come to agreement before March 15, Wold said the district will need to send preliminary layoff notices to all teachers who may lose their jobs, but added that those would not be finalized until May. He said layoff notices for non-teaching staff members must be approved by April 11.

Both Wold and Gonzalez-Hoy said they are hoping that voters will approve a ballot measure proposed in November that would provide more funding to schools statewide, which could ease the district’s budget concerns for 2021-22, when it anticipates it will need to cut another $16 million. Wold pointed out that other districts such as Oakland Unified and San Diego Unified are also having to make cuts, but Gonzalez-Hoy said West Contra Costa’s fiscal problems are in part due to overspending and lax fiscal controls over the past few years.

Wold, who was hired in August, agreed that the district has made budgeting mistakes in the past. Now, he said the district is cutting as much as possible by figuring out the base level of staffing that it needs at every school, then it hopes to “rebuild” based on district priorities, which include focusing special attention on high-needs students such as those who are low-income, English learners, foster youth and African American.

“Not everyone’s going to get everything they want,” he said, referring to union negotiations, as well as community feedback. “But everyone’s invested in solutions.”

* Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments this year in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the most urgent challenges facing many urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

Story originally published by EdSource.