Funding cuts and declining enrollment have put many of Minnesota’s schools in serious financial difficulty. More and more school districts are asking local taxpayers to approve operating referenda and some are considering closing school doors one day a week.
If you type in “four-day school week” on your computer and hit search, hundreds of references come up. The concept isn’t new. Some school districts in New Mexico switched to a four-day week back in the 1970s to reduce energy and transportation costs during the oil crisis. Today, there are more than 100 school districts in 17 states with a four-day school week, and the number is growing. Silver Bay and Two Harbors are considering it. So is Cook County.
Beth Schwarz, superintendent of Cook County Independent School District 166 (ISD 166) says that if Cook County schools decide to implement a four-day school week, it wouldn’t happen until the fall of 2011, and that community involvement in the decision is critical.
Like other districts across the state, ISD 166 has seen steady cuts in state funding over the last decade. The district has already made over $900,000 in budget reductions in recent years, including cuts to administration, staff, building maintenance, transportation and extra-curricular activities, but still faces a budget deficit of more than $400,000. Moving to a four-day school week is one of the few money-saving options left to many school districts across the state, and ISD 166 has been looking into the pros and cons of such a move.
“The process right now is that our educators here at the district, we’re looking at some things and reviewing information,” said Schwarz. “And we’ll be bringing that information to the public later this April, so towards the end of the month and into May, to involve the public in the discussions, to share what we’ve learned, to talk about possible schedules, possible calendars, but really to listen to the community and share information. I do think this is an important community discussion and certainly don’t want this to be a divisive issue, but rather, looking at our educational system and trying to find out what works best.”
Most of the districts nationwide that have gone to a four-day school week are rural districts that bus students considerable distances to and from school. Transportation costs go down in these districts, usually somewhere between 13% and 20%, and make up the bulk of cost savings associated with a four-day school week. ISD 166 estimates that such a move could save $130,000 per year in transportation costs.
The Lake Superior School District, which includes Silver Bay and Two Harbors, is also considering going to a four-day school week as a way to save money. Next month, voters will decide whether to support an operating referendum for the school district, and if so, whether they’re willing to pay more to keep the five-day school week in place. The district recently held a series of public forums to discuss the four-day school week. Tracy Tiboni is president of the Silver Bay Parent-Teacher-Student Organization (PTSO).
“The school district did sponsor three community meetings,” said Tiboni. “Two were held in the Two Harbors end of the district and then one here in Silver Bay. For the most part, there wasn’t a lot of concern as far as, that it was the wrong decision. Most of the questions raised at those community meetings were just trying to understand where we were at and why the decision was being looked at to go to the four-day school week. There was a handful of people that did express concern about making sure that the educational time was equivalent to the five-day school week, and our school board did a great job of really looking at that and examining how the change in days would affect the time, the teacher to student time that was involved in each of the classrooms, and kind of laid out the plan that they believe they will follow if that calendar is necessary to go forward with. And there’s even a group of people who are very strongly supporting it, in that they believe that the fifth day could offer a lot of opportunities for the community and the students to explore different avenues and come up with some new activities that would broaden the horizons for a lot of the students in the community."
There’s a surprising lack of recent data regarding student academic performance at four-day schools. Studies conducted in the 1980s, when the idea was fairly new, found that in general, the four-day school week did not result in poorer test scores. And surprisingly, there were positive results observed, including better attendance and morale among both students and teachers. But not everyone is convinced. There are concerns about the increased childcare burden on working families, as well as the effect of longer school days on younger and special needs children. Critics of the four-day school week say it’s a bad choice that’s been forced on public schools by long-term, systematic underfunding, representing a step in the wrong direction for public education in Minnesota, and the U.S.