SMMUSD HDQTRS — A highly-anticipated budget workshop this week is expected to be packed with emotion after parents at Santa Monica High School learned that several principals with the much-celebrated House System could be reassigned.

As the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District tries to close a more than $12 million hole in its budget, caused mainly by funding cuts from the state, one area where officials are examining to save money is the houses at Samohi, which were established in 2003 to give students a more intimate educational setting on a large campus.

Under the system, students upon matriculation are randomly assigned to one of the six houses — S, A, M, O, H, and I — where they work with a counselor and principal throughout their four-year-career. While initially met with resistance, the system has over the past few years been praised by parents and students alike. Several students spoke highly of how the House System enriched their educational experience at the high school during the State of Our School’s presentation last month.

It’s one of the many areas the district is considering changing to save money, including making reductions in central office administration.

A group of parents are planning on attending the budget workshop on Wednesday and the Board of Education meeting the following day in Malibu where district staff could be authorized to begin issuing letters to select employees that their jobs could be cut or reassigned in the next few months. The deadline to send the notifications is March 15.

While parents are sensitive to the dire economic conditions facing the district, they would like to see the cuts taken farthest from the classroom, said Elizabeth Stearns, the PTA president for Samohi.

“We are not coming into this saying don’t touch us,” Stearns said. “We realize Samohi as well as all schools are going to be impacted by the budget cuts.

“What we are asking is that prudent cuts be made to preserve the integrity of the high school that so many people have worked hard to maintain.”

House principals were not available for comment and instead referred inquiries to Mike Matthews, the assistant superintendent for human resources.

The district has yet to come up with a potential recommendation regarding the house system, which could result in a savings of up to $550,000, Matthews said.

“We’ve barely begun discussion about this,” Matthews said. “It won’t be decided for months.”

Samohi Principal Hugo Pedroza has reportedly devised a proposal that would keep the House System intact while drawing savings from elsewhere at the high school. The proposal has not yet been made public. Pedroza did not return phone calls for comment.

Notifying employees of their possible fate will give the district flexibility as it comes up with a final decision before the budget is approved in June, officials said.

“The district is fully committed to the house system,” Matthews said. “We believe it’s working, we believe it’s a great thing for the Samohi community, and we want to find ways to make it work continually very well.”

Other recommendations that officials have made include reducing two full time equivalent positions in nursing, three in intervention counseling services and two in elementary music, saving more than $500,000. The proposal was met with opposition from parents and the Santa Monica-Malibu Classroom Teachers Association, some defending the benefits of having a music program at the elementary level, others defending nurses, which have seen an increase in student visits over the past few years.

The board withheld making a decision on the recommendations, feeling it needed a fuller discussion on the issue, which led to the workshop being scheduled.

Ralph Mechur, the board president, said that there are several possible options, including reducing the number of principals but keeping all six houses. Another option could be to reduce the number of houses, he said.

“We ought to be able to look at the next couple of months whether the system we have in place is the correct system or whether we can make changes while providing the same quality of education to our students but reducing expenses,” Mechur said.

Some parents have in the meantime expressed support for Pedroza’s proposal.

“We understand what a very difficult time it is for everyone involved and we’re trying to come up with strategies and support strategies that we think will have the least impact on learning at the high school,” Stearns said.

melodyh@smdp.com