SMMUSD HDQTRS — While classes begin today for the new school year, district officials already have their minds on next year.

Facing an $8 to $12 million funding shortfall over the next three years, officials with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District (SMMUSD) have began focusing on the budget for the 2010-11 fiscal year, starting about four months ahead of schedule.

“Typically we don’t start seriously looking at the budget until after the governor proposes the next state budget (in January),” Jan Maez, the chief financial officer for the SMMUSD, said. “In these economic times … (the budget) is more of a continuous process.”

The district has slashed about $4.5 million in programs for the current fiscal year, increasing class sizes and eliminating a “house” in Santa Monica High School’s celebrated network of small learning communities called the House System.

Expecting more cuts in subsequent years, Superintendent Tim Cuneo last spring formed a budget advisory committee that includes representation from various levels of staff — administrators, teachers and classified employees — and the community, including a member from the Santa Monica-Malibu Council of PTAs and the Financial Oversight Committee.

After a summer hiatus, the committee is expected to resume its meetings soon.

“We know that in the next several years, we can’t be on our normal schedule,” Maez said about the budget development process.

As officials start identifying potential ways to save money, whether it be cutting salaries or programs, the teachers and classified employees unions are asking that any cuts be made the farthest from the classroom.

The Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association and SEIU Local 99 have recently joined forces to pressure the Board of Education to ensure that the quality of education not be compromised in the next round of cuts.

Their concern is that teachers and student services staff could be next.

“The union will use everything within our power to protect our modest income and any wages or benefits that have to be negotiated and cannot be unilaterally imposed without negotiating such changes with members,” Harry Keiley, the teachers union president, said.

Both groups are calling on the district to use its reserves, offer early retirement incentives and ease on entering contracts.

The district has used $8.5 million in reserves, Maez said in August. The district is expected to have $12.8 million in reserves left at the end of fiscal year.

“This is what (reserves) were created for,” Terry Carter of the SEIU said. “It’s raining now, it’s time to use the rainy day funds.”

But dipping into the reserves might not be feasible over time.

Maez said that multi-year projections for the budget shows that the district’s reserves are being depleted at a very rapid rate. District officials have said that reserves could be wiped out in just two years if drastic steps are not taken to reduce expenditures or increase revenues.

“That is not something that is sustainable over time,” Maez said.

melodyh@smdp.com