SMMUSD HDQTRS — The growing trend of furloughing employees could be in the school district’s future.

Facing the possibility of more than $4 million in cuts next year to various vital programs, including health services, elementary music, intervention counseling and Santa Monica High School’s House System, the Board of Education has requested the staff to explore the cost savings of unpaid leave.

It’s a proposal being floated by different agencies across the country in the current economic climate, following the lead of California officials which instituted Furlough Fridays for several hundred thousand state employees.

The suggestion came during the school board’s joint budget workshop with the Financial Oversight Committee on Wednesday when Assistant Superintendent Mike Matthews, which oversees human resources, presented a summary of more than $4 million in proposed reductions.

“It seems to me an option that seriously needs to be explored,” board member Jose Escarce said of furloughing.

It was among a number of suggestions that were raised by board members in addition to Matthews’ presentation, which was held just one day before the board was scheduled to authorize administrators to issue letters notifying certain employees that they might be laid off or reassigned positions. The state requires that such notices be sent by March 15.

Another option raised was to cut or freeze the salary of administrators who make more than $125,000 annually.

Board member Oscar de la Torre, who made the suggestion, said that while the top-earning administrators do deserve the salary level, given their experience and credentials, he would be interested in seeing sacrifices made at the top.

“It’s not what we get in terms of money, it’s what we get in terms of public trust,” he said.

The possible reductions presented by Matthews include a $700,000 cut in special education, which would not result in a loss of services because the district has typically overbudgeted the area by that same amount for the past few years, resulting in the funds being carried over, Matthews said.

Cuts in the district office administration are estimated to save about $300,000, and reductions in nurses, intervention counselors and elementary music teachers would result in an extra $400,000. Several parents urged officials retain Tom Whaley, the district’s director of visual and performing arts, pointing to the programs he has instituted during his time.

Jane Jeffries, the district’s director of health services, asked that the nurses not be laid off, pointing out that a healthy student means fewer absences and more money from the state, which basis its funding formula on daily attendance.

“Healthy children learn better and that helps close the achievement gap,” she said.

A reorganization of the House System at Samohi, an option that has been contested by parents, would result in a savings of about $550,000. Class size increases across the board would save another $1.2 million.

“We know the House System is a winner and has truly personalized education at Santa Monica High School,” Matthews said.

Some of the options include reducing the current six house structure down to five or four, which would impact anywhere from one to three administrators, three clerical staff and two student support advisers.

Several dozen parents addressed the board regarding the potential impacts to the House System, pleading that no changes be made and an alternate proposal by Principal Hugo Pedroza, which would reportedly keep the structure intact while drawing cuts from elsewhere, be considered.

“We need to preserve and promote the very best Samohi has to offer,” Deb Love, a parent wearing a Samohi sweatshirt, said.

melodyh@smdp.com