TURLOCK -- Left alone, the Turlock Unified School District budget will be empty within three years, and in the hole $16.6 million by the end of the 2012-13 fiscal year.
"Obviously, we're not going to let that happen," Chief Financial Officer Lori Decker said Tuesday night as she presented budget projections to the school board.
On a 6-0 vote with member John Sims absent, the board on Tuesday approved a proposal to cut $2.3 million from various programs this year; $1.9 million of that amount is federal money the district will keep instead of sending to individual schools.
District officials hope to cut another $1.5 million, which would leave the district $4 million out of balance. That $4 million could come from reserves.
Federal stimulus money has helped fill the gap the past two years, but Decker said that's going to run out and no further funding is expected.
District and union officials have been negotiating over pay cuts to make that $1.5 million mark; that would equate to about a 2 percent cut. District employees took across-the-board cuts last year. So far, they haven't come to agreement.
"I truly believe we need to work together," board member Eileen Hamilton said. "To think of a teacher losing a job is beyond comprehension for me."
With a daughter who was out of work for six months, Hamilton said the situation hits close to home. "I understand what it's like not to have a paycheck," she said.
Board members also shied away from increasing class sizes or instituting furlough days.
Julie Shipman, president of the Turlock Teachers Association, said her group agrees with half of that.
"We're not interested in raising class sizes," she said. "We don't want to lose any employees."
But she said furlough days are preferable to standard pay cuts. She pointed out that several districts in Stanislaus County are asking teachers to take furlough days.
"Furlough days would be a short-term answer to a short-term problem," she said. "When you ask employees to take salary cuts, that's ongoing. That lasts their entire careers, and into retirement."
Board President Frank Lima bristled at the idea the district wouldn't give money back to its employees if the economic situation improves.
"We do not want to hurt our employees," Lima said. "That's a no-brainer."
"I do recall in the past when we had a budget problem back in the '90s, we had a reduction in pay," she said. "As soon as money was available it went back to the teachers. Don't think we don't want to do that again. When we have money, we want to give it back to the teachers."
Board members expressed concern about the light turnout at the board meeting.
"I thought today was the most important meeting that we've had in a long time," Lima said. "It's too bad we didn't get a crowd."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2343.