Guest Commentary: The reason it’s come to thisWhen Lake Superior school board members approved the move to a four-day school week next fall, they joined a small but growing trend among Minnesota school districts.
By: John Fitzgerald , Lake County News Chronicle
When Lake Superior school board members approved the move to a four-day school week next fall, they joined a small but growing trend among Minnesota school districts. Four-day weeks have become the last, desperate act of districts that have been strangled by chronic state underfunding.
“This is 100-percent about money,” said Lake Superior School District Board Member Dwight Moe. When voters said no last Tuesday to a property tax increase to help fund schools, the district moved to a four-day school week to shave about $250,000 off transportation costs.
It’s a theme that is becoming all too common in Minnesota. The state has cut education funding an inflation-adjusted 14 percent since 2003. All school districts have different financial profiles, but most have cut teachers and programs to meet the state’s budget deficit. Now some are turning to the four-day school week to make ends meet.
Clearbrook-Gonvick Superintendent Allen Ralston said his district’s decision to go to a four-day week next school year was simple: “If we didn’t cut $200,000 this spring, then in the 2010-11 school year some of our core programs would have had to have been cut,” he said.
Clearbrook-Gonvick, in northwestern Minnesota, emphasizes classes in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. This gives students a leg up on area manufacturing jobs. The district also has committed to a focus on K-12 reading proficiency. Cuts this spring would have resulted in abandoning the reading proficiency program and pieces of the STEM program, Ralston said.
In a community poll, 94 percent said they would rather have a four-day week than see Clearbrook-Gonvick compromise educational quality any further, Ralston said. The district had already laid off teachers and not filled positions of retirees. The building in Gonvick was closed six years ago and the K-12 building is energy efficient. Home economics (now called family and consumer science) has been cut and music and industrial arts are down to bare bones.
“So where do you go?” Ralston asked. A four-day week will allow the district to keep the STEM classes and reading emphasis with class sizes at about 23 to 1.
Underfunding by the state is a problem that has left no district untouched. Since 2003, state aid to schools has dropped an inflation-adjusted 14 percent. Minnesota 2020 has calculated the underfunding suffered by each district in the state. This underfunding has caused Lake Superior and Clearbrook-Gonvick to join five existing four-day programs and three others that will start next fall.
In 2008, MACCRAY became the first Minnesota district to start a four-day week, followed last year by Blackduck, Warroad and Ogilvie. St. James started a four-day week last winter. In addition to Lake Superior and Clearbrook-Gonvick, Onamia, North Branch and A.C.G.C. will start next fall.
To be approved for a four-day week by the state, the district must show that no education time will be lost, usually by extending the length of the four school days. The district also has to hold special hearings and conduct other public engagement before the schedule is approved by the Minnesota Department of Education.
The idea is not new. Some districts adopted the four-day week to save money during the 1980s financial crisis, although all those in Minnesota reverted to a regular school week after several years. The practice hung on in some rural districts in states such as Wyoming, South Dakota and Louisiana, and districts in states such as Kentucky and West Virginia have recently moved to four-day weeks to save money.
But after examining the four-day week, several Minnesota districts have rejected the idea. Crookston, Norman County East, Rush City, Yellow Medicine East, Le Sueur-Henderson and Southland all considered and rejected the four-day week.
“When we raised the issue in our community, we heard the argument that if a four-day week is good, why not go to a three-day week?” said Crookston Superintendent Wayne Gilman.
Sarcasm aside, the main benefit of the four-day week comes in transportation. While there are some savings in manpower and utilities, leaving buses idle for one day each week — or 20 percent of the school year — saves on fuel costs. This favors geographically large districts. With about 2,500 square miles to cover each day, Moe said a four-day week will save the Lake Superior about $250,000 during the year. Crookston, on the other hand, is a smaller district and the savings would not be substantial, Gilman said.
All districts have different fiscal needs, but the increase in those districts looking at the four-day week is a clear indication of financial desperation. The business of education is education, not business. Schools need enough money to provide a quality education. It’s time for Minnesota lawmakers to do so.
“We’ve cut so much already,” Moe said. “If we hadn’t gone to the four-day week, we would have very few electives left and would have had to cut into core programs. That’s not being very responsible when we’re trusted to provide an education to our children.”
Fitzgerald is an education policy fellow at Minnesota 2020, which is tracking school districts that have implemented a four-day school week, plan to begin a four-day week, or are considering the idea. For more information, visit the 2020 web site at mn2020.org/.