VALLEY HOME -- If Michael Brennan had a business card, it would read superintendent, principal, vice principal, backup custodian and substitute teacher.
The 170-student Valley Home school district near Oakdale isn't much different from other small Stanislaus County districts that rely on a handful of people to do many jobs.
"You just kind of do everything," Brennan said, searching through file folders on transportation, safety and after-school programs on his linoleum office floor Friday during spring break. "Everyone's doing their part to keep this district alive."
While the county's largest school district, Modesto City Schools, eliminated nearly $12 million from its $300 million budget last month, smaller districts are finding it especially hard to find positions and programs to do away with in response to Gov. Schwarzenegger's proposal to slash billions in education funding.
"They don't have a lot of options," said Don Gatti, the county Office of Education's assistant superintendent of business serv-ices. "There are not a lot of places to cut."
This month, five county districts of 70 to 3,500 students submitted reports to the Stanislaus County Office of Education showing looming budget problems. The districts -- Valley Home, Empire Union, Hughson Unified, Roberts Ferry and La Grange -- earned a "qualified" status, meaning the district is in danger of not meeting financial obligations for the current or subsequent two fiscal years.
The state requires school districts to submit projections through the 2009-10 school year, based on Schwarzenegger's January budget proposal to slash $4.8 billion from K-12 education funding.
Before this year, only the Keyes Union Elementary School District had filed a qualified report since the reporting requirement went into effect in 2004, Gatti said. The five districts in jeopardy are using budget reserves to stay afloat and are in danger of not having enough to set aside for a state-mandated emergency fund in future years, Gatti said.
"If they don't make cuts and they keep spending that down, they essentially are broke," he said. "It's like a business that goes bankrupt."
Charter school will close
The county's smallest school district, La Grange, must slash $220,000, nearly a fourth of its budget, under the governor's proposal. The district plans to close the charter school of 55 students in the fall and issued temporary layoff notices to all six charter school teachers.
If the budget picture doesn't improve, Superintendent Joe Magnu would become the district's sole teacher for the 15 students living within the district boundaries.
Empire school officials said they need to make deep cuts to escape their qualified status -- about $2.8 million this spring from a $30 million budget, with more cuts to come in the fall.
"It's close enough that we're worried about it," Superintendent Bob Price said. "The situation is still fixable. It's really a red flag."
County education officials will work with the five districts to create a recovery plan, which could include assigning a financial adviser to help suggest budget cuts or changes.
If a district's financial condition worsens, the county office has the power to control its spending.
"We would give them every opportunity to turn things around without more serious intervention," Gatti said.
Brennan, Valley Home's sixth superintendent since 2000, said even the smallest cuts, such as deciding whether to paint a door or run a tractor, will be under consideration. One classified employee's position has been cut from the staff of about 15 people.
"It's rough out here," Brennan said. "The emergency is now."