After two years in the red, the Hesperia Unified School District's photo department will be going dark.

"It does have a very significant impact on the general fund at a time that we are laying people off," Superintendent Mark McKinney said at the beginning of Monday night's meeting of the Hesperia Unified School District school board.

The district's two-year-old photo department was intended from the beginning as a moneymaker, but higher than expected expenses and lower than hoped for revenues have turned it into a money-loser instead.

"We are under tremendous stress and I believe you all know that," said board member Lee Rogers. The board just laid off 32 teachers earlier in May -- it was to be 33, before an additional teacher chose to retire. "In order to get through this crisis, there are bridges we have to cross and some of them are not pleasant bridges.

"We've operated in the red and continue to operate in the red."

"If we stopped today," Kirk said, the photo shop program "would cost us $1,255,742. ... It seems like this board has been put in the position of cleaning up messes."

The meeting, which was preceded by the district's annual ceremony honoring the year's retirees, featured audience members speaking out both in favor of an against the program.

"It takes three to five years to get a business going," Jean Campbell said. "Let's give it one more year. If it's still in the hole, cut it. But this is a program that needs a chance to succeed."

"It's absurd to keep photographs while you're laying off teachers," Chris Bentley said. "Teachers have more value to a school district ... than any photographer."

In the end, the HUSD school board voted 3-1 to terminate the program as speedily as possible. Board member Helen Rogers dissented and board member Bruce Minton was absent.

Board president Robert Kirk would like to use the money to save the district's elementary school music and high school piano programs, both of which are due to be terminated this year, due to layoffs, as well as hire four additional non-teacher slots that have been left vacant.

"The photo shop was down $1,255,742," in 22 months, Kirk said Tuesday. "Some have figured higher than that."

Shutting down the photo shop would mean at least a $442,000 annual savings, Kirk estimates, based on figures from the district.

"When we looked at what would it cost to [lay off] a teacher ... it's usually in the neighborhood of $55,000 per teacher," he said. "I never was in favor of getting into a business venture for profit. I believe those monies are given to us in a trust by taxpayers, and they ought to be used on our students."

The district does not yet have precise figures on how much money will be saved by shutting down the program -- the exact cost of shutting down the photo department is not yet known, as the lease on equipment will have to be broken, and other fees may have to be paid -- and district officials are cautioning that it's too soon to break out the champagne bottles.

Saving the music program would cost "around" $575,000, said Karen Kelly, the district's new assistant superintendent of personnel. And even if the elementary music program is saved, Surojeet Chatterji's high school piano classes may not be, as his situation is more complicated.

"We want him to come back," Kelly said. "It doesn't have anything to do with us not wanting him, because obviously with the way the parents and students talk about him, he is a gifted teacher, but there are some issues that need to be overcome for him to return to that position."

She could not give the full details of his situation, as personnel matters are private, but did say what it was not.

"It's not anything of a disciplinary nature or anything like that," Kelly said. "He didn't travel the normal path of becoming a teacher, and that poses challenges."

"Those five teachers I want to come back are music people," Kirk said. "Those are positions, not [specific] people."

The next meeting of the Hesperia Unified School District school board will be a special meeting on Tuesday, May 27, in the superintendent's conference room at the HUSD district office, 15576 Main Street.

The next regular meeting of the school board will be held on June 9 at the board's usual meeting place in the Education Support Center, 15576 Main Street.

Beau Yarbrough can be reached at 956-7108 or at beau@hesperiastar.com.