COLUMBIA — The budget for Palmetto State schools could be slashed by another $165 million in a slimmed-down, preliminary spending plan expected to be released today, with nurses, new buses and dropout prevention programs on the chopping block.

The Department of Education is first up as legislative budget writers get to work on drafting a spending plan for the 2009-10 fiscal year, a task that will be unlike any other in recent memory. The state's economy has been in a free fall for months, with the current $6.3 billion budget and rainy day-fund cut by about a billion dollars since the summer.

Agencies have been warned to brace for more cuts in the fiscal year that begins in July.

The Education Department was largely spared the worst of the economic meltdown when legislators targeted mid-year budget cuts, but no promise is on the table for the future. The agency has been dealt cuts worth $334 million in the last six months.

"We're in new territory here because schools have never had this much money taken away so quickly," said Jim Foster, agency director of communications.

Superintendent of Education Jim Rex and his senior staff crunched numbers Monday to prepare for today's meeting before a Ways and Means subcommittee.

Local school districts are expected to bear the brunt of a sized-down Education Department budget because 96 percent of the agency's $2.2 billion budget is passed on to districts.

Lowcountry school officials haven't been given specific numbers on what to expect, but Charleston County schools' Chief Financial Officer Mike Bobby said they were told not to expect any more money next year than what they end up with this year. Mid-year state budget cuts for Charleston County total nearly $15 million, and the predicted $20 million shortfall for next fiscal year likely will be larger, he said.

The county school board is exploring closing and consolidating schools to save money, but budget cuts this severe mean school officials will have to look to the biggest chunk of their budget — personnel — to find ways to survive the crisis, Bobby said.

"There's no way around it with the reductions we've seen," he said.

Rep. Roland Smith, a Langley Republican and chairman of today's subcommittee meeting, said decisions will be extremely difficult. He has been on the Ways and Means Committee since 1995 and remembers no budget more difficult to write.

"There is absolutely no comparison," Smith said. It's his goal, he said, and the goal of the House leadership, to protect public schools as much as possible from future cuts.

The Education Department is considering cuts to charter schools, bus purchases, textbooks and programs for dropout prevention and student career tracks. The spending shortfall also could mean less money for nurses and bus shop mechanics and fleet maintenance.

The Ways and Means Committee, which writes the first version of the budget for the Legislature, is continuing to gather reports from agencies about how each would absorb deeper cuts and determining what programs have been eliminated and how much staff has been laid off or offered early retirement, for instance.

House Majority Leader Kenny Bingham of Cayce, who leads the Transportation and Regulatory Subcommittee, said he is reviewing accountability reports and audits in advance of his budget hearings.

Given the economic conditions, it's more important than ever for legislators to make sure government is meeting its core functions and agencies aren't spending money outside of their missions.

"When you don't have the money, you just don't have the money," Bingham said.

Gov. Mark Sanford is expected to release his budget plan Friday. The governor has proposed business and income tax breaks paid for mostly by eliminating some economic development incentives and by raising the state's cigarette tax.