"We are in worse shape than we anticipated because we realized recently that our revenue was overstated," said Diane Zimmerman, superintendent of the district. "But no decision whatsoever has been made to close a school. Our school board won't make a decision about this until it has all the information it needs.

"We are trying to find a way to run the district in the most cost-effective way that we can."

Due to state budget cuts, Zimmerman said last month that the district needed to cut $1.3 million from its budget over the next three years. Since the district's revenues won't be as large as originally anticipated, Zimmerman now estimates that $1.5 million to $1.6 million in cuts will be necessary.

If the board decides not to close a school starting next year, it could happen the following year, Zimmerman said.

Three of the five schools in the Old Adobe district —?La Tercera, Miwok and Sonoma Mountain —?each have about 400 students. Bernard Eldredge and Old Adobe are the schools being considered for closure primarily because they both have about 260 students enrolled, the lowest in the district, Zimmerman said, adding that closing a school would result in a savings of about $390,000 per school year.

"Enrollment at Bernard Eldredge has been steadily declining, and if it didn't have the (Spanish-English) Dual Immersion program, the decision on which school to consider closing would be a no-brainer," she said.

The Dual Immersion program was implemented this school year, and consists of two kindergarten classes and one first-grade class. Each class is comprised of native English-speaking and native Spanish-speaking students, and enables them to become adept at both languages and expand their global horizons as they proceed through grade levels.

If Bernard Eldredge closes, the Dual Immersion program could remain on the school grounds until the property is sold (if it is sold), or be implemented at another school, Zimmerman said.

If either school closes, new boundaries would need to be established for the remaining schools, and initially, second- through sixth-grade classes at the closing school would be kept together and placed in schools with sufficient space.

The school board is scheduled to discuss a possible school closure at its meeting at 7 p.m., Thursday, March 11, at Sonoma Mountain Elementary School.

Zimmerman would like the board to make a decision by April whether or not to close one of the schools so that sufficient time will be available to implement changes.

Other cost-cutting measures also are being considered. The district could save up to $300,000 by creating eight furlough days for teachers and staff members next year and $150,000 annually by redistributing Tier III categorical funding, which traditionally applies to gifted and talented programs and counseling, among other things.

Many students, families, teachers and staff members would be affected if a school is closed, and some of them were among some 100 people marching in protest in the pouring rain in front of the Old Adobe district office on Monday. Another march was planned for Wednesday.

Several parents of students in Bernard Eldredge's Dual Immersion program showed up, and were upset. Most of the marchers expressed concerned about closing either Bernard Eldredge or Old Adobe.

"I think there are a lot of other ways that we can make money — such as fund-raisers," said Silvia Velazquez, the parent of a first-grade boy and second-grade girl at Bernard Eldredge.

Tracy Perlich, the parent of a kindergarten student, says her family moved to the Petaluma area last year partly because of the school's Dual Immersion program.

"I believe in the program: I have seen how it positively changes schools," she said. "The budget situation is hideous, but Bernard Eldredge is in the middle of the community, and given the leadership that has been put in place there, it would be short-sighted to close the school.

"I will support whatever the parent community does to prevent the school from closing."

Rick Parker, president of the Old Adobe board, emphasized that the decision will be a tough one for board members.

"It will be extremely difficult," he said. "After making multiple budget cuts, we now are looking at what large pieces are at our disposal to cut that still would enable us to maintain our long-term focus on educating the kids."

Besides being impacted by the recent, severe state cutbacks, Old Adobe also has suffered financial difficulties due to steadily declining enrollment. When Zimmerman began serving as superintendent in 2002, the district had 1,976 students, and it now has 1,750. This loss of 226 students nearly matches the enrollment of Bernard Eldredge and Old Adobe.

This is partially because the local birth rate has dropped and because about one-third of parents in the district are choosing to send their children to schools outside their neighborhoods, Zimmerman said.

Steve Bolman, deputy superintendent of business and administration for Petaluma City Schools, reports that after several years of decline, the student population at elementary schools in his district is starting to grow.

"And we're not looking at closing any school this year or next year," he said.

Petaluma City Schools needs to cut approximately $2.7 million out of its 2010-2011 budget. Establishing five furlough days would result in a savings of around $1.2 million, and other possible cutbacks that he previously mentioned include flexibly using Tier III categorical funding, eliminating deferred maintenance transfer, reducing the amount of money available for economic uncertainties and laying off some teachers.

"We will be getting a list of prospective cuts from the Augmented Budget Committee," Bolman said.

(Contact Dan Johnson at dan.johnson@arguscourier.com)