CITY HALL — District administrators will take another look at a controversial proposal to layoff staff in several high-demand services after the Board of Education expressed concerns with letting go of employees without further exploring alternatives.

Facing steep budget reductions in the coming year, the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District is attempting to close the gap through a range of cuts ranging from $695,000 to nearly $7 million, possibly decreasing supply allocations to schools, restructuring the house system at Santa Monica High School, and thinning the central office administration.

But the plan that has drawn the most ire from the community, particularly from the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, is the proposal to reduce two full-time positions in nursing, three in categorical intervention counseling services and two from elementary music instruction, saving more than $500,000.

The teachers union has argued that the cuts should be made furthest away from the classroom and begin at the administrative level.

“When we see the first recommendation for budget reduction coming before you tonight to directly hurt kids and schools and the members I represent, we have to stand up and speak out,” Harry Keiley, the SMMCTA president, said. “The priorities in this district needs to be kids, they need to be classroom and they need to be school houses.”

School board members said they were uncomfortable with making a decision that would affect employment without looking into other options, adding that they had just learned about the possible budget cuts two weeks ago and needed to have a full discussion about all the implications.

“From my perspective, they haven’t been put together in a framework that would enable me to understand the tradeoffs,” board member Jose Escarce said. “If we decide to keep these seven FTEs, what is it that we’re losing so that I can understand whether I prefer to keep these seven FTEs or the other thing that I would otherwise lose.”

The clock is ticking for the board to make its decision on the layoffs as state law requires that employees be notified of termination by March 15. The board is planning on discussing the alternatives at a tentatively scheduled special meeting on March 4 before making its final decision the next day.

Much of the funding for the three areas in jeopardy come from the state or other sources where officials are unsure of whether the money will continue to flow next year, leaving the district to foot the bill from its general fund unless layoffs occur.

“We all know these people … provide valuable instruction, support and services to our students and families,” Mike Matthews, the assistant superintendent for human resources, said.

A large group of parents spoke against the proposed cuts to elementary music instruction and health services, some telling stories of how nurses have helped their children with special medical needs, others reflecting fondly on how the district’s performing arts programs have helped students flourish.

The music program was the reason why Janis Gabbert moved her son from a magnet school for gifted children to the district.

“Immediately upon beginning his Santa Monica experience, my son found a sense of pride in himself and soon found like-minded souls in the music program and acquired a solid group of buddies he has maintained to this day,” she said.

A number of health professionals urged the board to maintain the existing nursing staff level, which in light of the current economy where parents are losing their jobs and health coverage are seeing an increase in student visits.

William McCarthy, who serves on the Health and Safety District Advisory Committee, said that Santa Monica High School nurses are seeing an average of 85-90 students every day.

Jane Jeffries, the director of health services, said the district nurses last year received more than 47,000 visits, which was an increase of about 3,000 from the year before. She expects the numbers to go up this year.

There are currently 10.9 FTE nursing positions in the district.

“If you cut two positions, you cut 20 percent of our department and you really won’t be able to give the kind of healthcare that we want to,” she said.

School board member Kelly Pye agreed, saying that health is one of the fundamental services that the district must provide for the students.

“There are so many ways that the nurses contribute to the very fabric of our school communities that I just cannot support a cut to our nursing staff,” she said.

Superintendent contract draws concerns

After more than half a year with the district, Tim Cuneo went from interim to permanent superintendent on Thursday.

Amid praise of the work that Cuneo has done in the district over the past several months, credited with helping to heal a divide within the special education program, were concerns over the amount of money that he will be receiving in the recently approved three-year contract, earning $220,000 a year.

The figure does not include the $1,000-a-month phone and automobile allowance or $3,200 a month housing allowance that Cuneo will receive as per the contract. He will also receive pay for unused vacation time.

He replaced former Superintendent Dianne Talarico who in 2006 signed a three-year contract in which she also received allowances, including $650 for automobile expenses.

Several residents have voiced reservations about the contract given the district’s current economic situation.

“We think we need the stability in the superintendent’s office and therefore we’re not opposed to the appointment of Mr. Cuneo,” Keiley said. “We have serious concerns about the extremely lucrative contract provisions which are being provided to the superintendent at a time when we’re going to be asking employees to make sacrifices.”

District officials defended the contract, calling it comparable and competitive to what superintendents in similar-sized districts are being paid, adding that Cuneo has accomplished a great deal of work during his short time at the district.

Barry Snell, the school board vice president, pointed out that part of the housing allowance basically offsets the amount of money the district would have spent on a search firm — roughly $25,000 — to find a permanent superintendent.

He added that the district might not have found the best pool of candidates if it had gone ahead with the search, particularly if an already favored candidate — Cuneo — was included in the mix, deterring prospects from applying.

“Having a known commodity versus an unknown commodity in this climate actually gave us a lot of confidence in making the decisions that we did,” he said.

melodyh@smdp.com