Kathy Diederich was pregnant with her second child when she decided accounting was no longer for her.
Three days after giving birth, Diederich interviewed to enter a teacher credentialing program. She balanced term papers with late-night feedings and juggled studying for tests with diaper changes.
The Salida teacher, now in her sixth year teaching first grade at Mildred Perkins Elementary School, is expecting to receive a notice this week that her job is in danger.
"I would never pick another job," said Diederich, 42, before rounding up her students Thursday afternoon to read Dr. Seuss' "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."
"I think the frustrating part for me is ... you're in limbo and you're not sure what's going to happen. I feel I'm not protected."
Diederich and thousands of other California teachers are learning they might not have jobs next year, as school districts around the state react to Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposal to cut $4.8 billion in K-12 education funding. Educators say the cuts will have a big impact, from art and music electives to library books and sports programs.
At least 5,000 teachers statewide have received layoff notices, according to the California Teachers Association. Many more are expected before Saturday, the deadline for districts to notify teachers their jobs are in danger. Final layoff decisions will be made in May.
In a closed-session meeting Monday night, the Modesto City Schools Board of Education will consider issuing 41 temporary layoff notices to nearly all its district-level administrators.
$84 million at stake
EdSource, an independent, nonpartisan education research group based in Mountain View, called the billions in proposed cuts "the largest ever contemplated" for California's public schools.
In Stanislaus County, the cuts translate to $84 million in lost funds, or $750 less per student, said Don Gatti, the county Office of Education's assistant superintendent of business services.
The proposed cuts have put the county's school districts, more than half of them already weakened by declining enrollment, on alert.
"We're used to the ups and downs of this," Gatti said, "but the magnitude is almost insurmountable."
Even though the proposals are the starting point for what could be months of haggling in Sacramento, school administrators must begin formulating budget-slashing strategies now in order to approve a budget by June 30.
In school districts across Stanislaus County, nurses, counselors, teachers and custodians are at risk of having their positions cut. Administrators are freezing travel expenses and offering incentives for teachers to retire early. Some are looking into increasing class sizes or combining bus routes.
'Took a lot of heat'
Modesto City Schools' Board of Education approved $11.6 million in cuts last month, including eliminating junior high librarians, reducing nurse positions, and eliminating the college-preparatory AVID program for low-income and minority students at one junior high and four high schools.
The board endured a nearly three-hour tongue-lashing from about 700 people before voting on the cuts. They ultimately voted against cutting elementary and junior high music teachers and increasing kindergarten class sizes.
"We took a lot of heat," said Chris Flesuras, associate superintendent of human resources. "We just happened to (make our cuts) a week before everybody else. It's scary, really, because I think most districts aren't going to be able to make those kinds of cuts."
District officials in Modesto say more cuts are likely to come.
Barney Hale, executive director of the Modesto Teachers Association, said the district has lost about 90 classroom jobs since student enrollment took a downturn five years ago. He wants to see corresponding cuts to district administrators.
"As the kids go, we lose in terms of total numbers of teachers," Hale said. "We sort of have automatic cuts built in."
Among the most vulnerable are temporary employees who work on one-year contracts, including about half the school nurses in Modesto City Schools.
School nurse Penny Sensney fears four of the five nurses working with Modesto's 3- and 4-year-olds may be cut before the final budget is passed in June. Sensney helps children get immunizations, refers them for vision and dental checkups, and shows teachers how to respond to health emergencies in their classroom, such as asthma attacks. About 1,600 children are enrolled in the district's child development programs, Sensney said.
"Because we're not in classrooms with 20 kids, we look like an expendable commodity that is easy to cut," Sensney said. "The cost of not having those services is huge. If you're a kindergartner and can't see to read, it doesn't matter how many things we throw at reading programs."
Can't wait for the politicians
Last month, the Legislature's budget analyst, Elizabeth Hill, countered Schwarzenegger's budget plan to reduce state spending by 10 percent across the board and suspend the state law guaranteeing minimum funding for public schools.
Hill's proposal would greatly reduce the hit on schools and would raise $2.7 billion in new revenue to cover the deficit, which she pegged at $16 billion.
Kevin Gordon, whose Sacramento lobbying firm represents most California school districts, foresees a drawn-out budget fight in the state Capitol this year, with education taking center stage.
He said Republicans are sticking to their "no new taxes" pledge and Democrats have refused to vote for an "all cuts" budget.
"The folks in the Capitol are fixing for a long fight," Gordon said. "But local districts can't wait for the political games to conclude."
The Empire Union School District last week approved possible layoffs for 14 of 180 teachers and two school administrators as a start to slashing $2.7 million from next year's budget.
District officials expect to be in the red for the next two years and might have to close a school in 2009.
Board member Nicholas Bavaro was vocal over the shortfall in special education spending, which is mandated by the state and federal governments but not fully funded by either. The Empire district used $2.5 million of its $30 million general fund to fill the gap this year, roughly equal to the amount the district must make in cuts.
"If the state and federal governments lived up to their word, we wouldn't be having this conversation," Bavaro said.
The governor proposes to lop $358 million more from special education funding, but school districts must provide the same services to its special needs students.
Toughest for smallest
Many of Stanislaus County's smallest school districts have fewer dollars to cut but far fewer choices in deciding where to scale back.
Smaller schools have worked hard to separate all grade levels into their own classes, but they may have to revert to combination classes to help cope with proposed cuts.
Valley Home Joint School District, a one-school, 160-student district near Oakdale, might have to cut a teacher next year and blend two grade levels into one classroom.
Combination classes produce twice the work for teachers and less one-on-one attention for students, said Michael Brennan, Valley Home's superintendent and principal.
Local administrators say the governor's proposed cuts harken back to the era of Proposition 13, a controversial ballot initiative passed in 1978 that capped property tax increases statewide and resulted in a dramatic reduction in the amount of local property tax revenue available for schools. California's national ranking in per-pupil spending has declined ever since.
"Here we are, with California the seventh-largest economy in the world, and we're 46th in the nation in what we spend per student," said Steve Menge, assistant superintendent of administrative services for Patterson schools.
"It just doesn't make sense."
Some lobby, others retire
On Monday, the Stanislaus chapter of the Association of California School Administrators will travel to Sacramento to lobby legislators against the cuts.
But some teachers aren't waiting for the political bickering to play out.
Empire teacher Susan Skram is opting to take her district's early retirement incentive this year.
Skram, 59, planned to teach third grade at Capistrano Elementary School for at least two more years to help pay for her daughter's college tuition.
But Skram, a 36-year veteran of Empire schools, said the trend of ballooning classroom expectations with fewer dollars has become too discouraging.
"I think you see a lot of swings in education, whether it's curriculum or whatever the recent round of budget cuts are," Skram said. "To be an educator, you really have to be optimistic. I think it's difficult to maintain an optimistic perspective.
"I think it's really time people stood up and asked more of their state governments when it comes to education."
Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.