Editor's note: This is the first of two stories about Barstow Unified School District's financial struggles.

BARSTOW Barstow school officials project a $3.4 million spending deficit this school year, and higher deficits down the road.

The Barstow Unified School District will spend an estimated $32.4 million this school year, spending about $5,292 for per student. But the district will only bring in about $29 million in funds, according to Tony Wardell, assistant superintendent of business services for Barstow Unified School District. That deficit will have to be covered by the district's reserves fund, draining the $12 million saved in previous years.

The state has cut spending to schools drastically in the last five years, leaving Barstow Unified School district officials scrambling to make their own cuts while tryinig to maintain the quality of education. In deferments alone, the district has eaten about $9 million money the state is supposed to pay back later.

"We're trying to do the best we can with the resources we have," said school board member Julie Clemmer. "When we have to make cuts we keep them as far away from the classroom as possible."

Clemmer said the task of projecting future budget is difficult as they are constantly changing at the whim of the state.

Gov. Jerry Brown's January budget estimated California schools would be cut $4.8 billion if voters don't approve his temporary tax hikes in November that would bring in an estimated $6.9 billion.

These cuts represent about $2.1 million annually for Barstow Unified schools, Wardell estimated. If the trigger cuts are made, the district projects a $5.7 million deficit by the 2013-2014 school year, completely draining the reserve fund and leaving the district $4.4 million in the hole.

"In a nutshell, if the tax initiative doesn't pass the district is going to have to make significant cuts," Wardell said.

Members of the school board say the only reason they are still able to make ends meet is because they have budgeted conservatively in the past. Both Clemmer and school board President Mary Rodriguez said they continue to make decisions that don't affect the quality of education at the district.

"That's our main thing: we don't want to cut the classroom and our students," Rodriguez said.

Wardell said the district worked well with the teachers and classified employees unions to keep costs down, while avoiding hard decisions like furlough days or extreme layoffs.

"It's been a team effort from the unions, from the administration, from the school board to find solutions to avoid those hard decisions," Wardell said. "But it's been a bumpy road."

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(760) 256-4123 or klucia@desertdispatch.com