NB school board mulling over alternative year schedules

The ‘ifs’ may determine calendar direction
North Branch schools could be on course to alternative schedules,
including a possible four-day school week, if the financial situation
gets worse. If the legislature cuts school funding further, if this fall’s
operating levy referendum fails and if enrollment continues its
decline, Superintendent Deb Henton recommended to the school board at
its work session last Thursday that it form a task force to study a
four-day school week and other alternative schedules to help cut costs.

By Aaron Vehling
North Branch schools could be on course to alternative schedules, including a possible four-day school week, if the financial situation gets worse.

If the legislature cuts school funding further, if this fall’s operating levy referendum fails and if enrollment continues its decline, Superintendent Deb Henton recommended to the school board at its work session last Thursday that it form a task force to study a four-day school week and other alternative schedules to help cut costs.

Henton emphasized including all stakeholders (community and district) in a discussion of alternative scheduling.

Such a task force would begin research in November 2009, if all three of the aforementioned criteria are met.

“We need to have at least 75 percent (of people) on board before moving forward,” Henton said.

Henton also said that a four-day week would not be the only schedule considered. The task force, she said, would look at other alternative schedules, including a yearlong schedule.

In her presentation, Henton outlined the benefits and detriments of a four-day school week. Because there is no single definitive four-day schedule, she included benefits and detriments that assume a five-day work week for staff and longer school days for students on a four-day schedule.

These were based on information from districts that have either already studied such a schedule or are using one.

Some of the suggested benefits include:
• Reduced absenteeism.
• Older students can spend more time on part-time jobs and extracurricular activities.
• Longer class periods give more time for kids to work on lessons.
• There is a cost savings in transportation, service and substitute teachers.
• The fifth day could be used for planning, remedial courses and professional development (if the district switched to a four-day week for students and maintained a five-day week for staff).
• Allow high-achieving students to “de-stress.”

Some of the proposed detriments include:
• Families often endure increased costs for an extra day of child care.
• Long days are difficult for older students, especially those in activities.
• Cost savings are small, considering the bulk of education costs are in teaching staff.
• Children in poverty receive fewer meals.
One Minnesota school district, MACCRAY, currently has a four-day school week.
In her presentation, Henton said that MACCRAY, which started using the schedule this year, is set to realize about $80,000 to $100,000 in cost savings. This is a rough estimate.
The MACCRAY results include the following:
• Students and staff both enjoy having Monday off.
• Evenings are noticeably shorter for students and staff.
• Most of the cost savings is in diesel fuel and fuel oil.
• Instruction time increased by close to three days’ worth.
• Daycare concerns were prominent initially, but subsided about a month into the schedule.

One overriding theme that MACCRAY and counterparts across the United States and Canada have found is that while they are reducing the week by 20 percent, the costs do not match this.

This disparity exists, Henton said, because  transportation, utilities, food service and substitute teachers only comprise about 4 percent of a maintenance and operating budget. The savings is only a portion of that 4 percent, coming in at about 0.75 to 1.5 percent of a district’s annual budget.

As for student achievement, the most important prerogative of a school district, the results do not indicate improved student performance or declining student performance.

In other words, Henton said that a general theme has been that a four-day schedule “neither helps nor hurts”  achievement. On the other hand, studies do show improvement in student achievement for yearlong schedules, Henton said.

Henton also noted in her presentation that a number of Minnesota and national school districts studied some variation of the four-day schedule and many declined to pursue it.

Boardmember John White wondered what the predominant reason was that “people said ‘no’?”

Henton said it is because of the fifth day “with kids at home and cost savings not as great as people anticipate.”

Given recent history, the three criteria indicated – declining enrollment, reduced state aid and an operating levy failing to pass – will likely be met and thus a task force will likely be formed, but this does not guarantee any immediate changes in the future. It just leaves options open.

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