State denies 4-day week againStudents and staff at schools in Two Harbors and Silver Bay will likely proceed as usual this coming school year – it’s expected they will have five days of classes a week after a second denial of the Lake Superior School District’s application for a four-day school week.
By: Matt Suoja, Mike Creger, Lake County News Chronicle
Students and staff at schools in Two Harbors and Silver Bay will likely proceed as usual this coming school year – it’s expected they will have five days of classes a week after a second denial of the Lake Superior School District’s application for a four-day school week.
The latest Minnesota Department of Education denial is likely the fatal blow for the school board proposal as it hoped to save as much as $250,000 with the shortened week. Superintendent Phil Minkkinen said the news was frustrating and wasn’t sure where the district will go from here. He expected to speak with the school board Thursday and didn’t know if there would be a third attempt at four-day approval.
According to a letter from the department released Tuesday, the denial is based on two factors. The district failed to provide proof that students wouldn’t lose classroom time and didn’t convince the department that public meetings it held were specifically about the four-day week proposal.
School board member Carol Youngberg of Silver Bay said the news is “very upsetting. We are trying to be frugal. … What’s going to happen when there is no money.”
Minkkinen said its “awfully late” to do something to curb spending next year but wanted to speak with the school board before making any conclusions.
“We can hunker down … at some point we have to buy books,” Minkkinen said. The district was also looking at buying three buses with the money it expected to save from going to a short week.
The Minnesota Department of Education told the district in the letter that under the plan sent in by the district, students would not get enough instructional time. State law regarding any “flexible learning year program” change, like a four-day week, requires students to get as much or more time in class than under the previous year’s schedule.
A spreadsheet provided by the state shows elementary students getting about 50 fewer hours of instructional time.
Secondary students would have received 25 to 45 fewer hours. Under the state numbers, the district would need to add two weeks to the yearly schedule to make up the time.
Minkkinen said how the department calculated the times is a mystery. He said the district’s numbers show students with more instructional time.
The superintendent said the district went above and beyond trying to satisfy what the state wanted but theorized the district was being held to a different standard. He said the Department of Education appeared to have been changing the rules as they went along. He said the state should have had meetings on the different rule changes before they were implemented.
“The Flexible Learning Year law is governed by many Minnesota state statutes,” said Christine Dufour, deputy communications director for the Minnesota Department of Education. “A rubric is used to evaluate all of the applications using the same process.”
The letter signed by Commissioner Alice Seagren also notes that questions remain about the whether the board actually hosted the required three public meetings to specifically discuss the four-day proposal. “MDE remains concerned that the content of the hearings veered to discussion of an upcoming levy,” the letter stated. “Deeper consultation with community stakeholders is needed.”
Minkkinen remains confident that the district held the meetings the correct way.
“Absolutely,” he said of the meetings. “I can’t prevent people from talking about the levy.”
“That’s kind of an interesting perspective,” said Jack Pichotta, school board member about the state questioning whether the meetings were about the four-day week. He said it was impossible to talk about one and not the other.
School board members said the state’s motivation in the denials has been political, with pressure coming from residents such as Mark Broin, who set up a web site in reaction to the districts actions this year. He was joined by other district residents who sent letters to the state demanding a denial of the four-day application. Their reason included a lack of proper public discussion on the issue.
“Now they have to face up to the economic situation,” Broin said.
“I don’t know if they can,” said Pat Wilson, school board member, about the states decision denying the application. He said the denial is political and questions whether the district was asked for more information than others.
Pichotta said he thought the district had done what all the other districts had done when it came to sending in the application.
“I was under the impression our first request was similar to others,” he said. Pichotta said the instructional time was the same as last year and is equally miffed by the state’s determination that the numbers didn’t add up.
The budget-challenged district’s original application was denied June 10. The district was asked to address seven areas of “concern” in an application that lacked sufficient information to approve the change. The district was told to submit a “strengthened application” for review.
There was a chance that the four-day week could have been allowed this year despite the first denial. Now, with the questions about student class time and public meetings, there might not be enough time to make the four-day adjustment.
It was expected the four-day week would save the district mostly in transportation costs.
“This puts us in serious trouble instantly,” Minkkinen said in June. “We’re going broke faster now.”
The preliminary 2010-11 district budget shows revenues at about $20.2 million while expenditures are projected at $20.6 million, creating a deficit of $400,000. The district has trimmed nearly $1.5 million from the current budget, most of it because it plans to spend no money in items related to school construction improvements.
The board discussed bidding out for snow removal at the Two Harbors schools.
The district receives help from Silver Bay city crews for removal, Minkkinen said. “We don’t have that luxury [in Two Harbors].”
The superintendent said the equipment for snow removal in Two Harbors is “pathetic” and suggested hiring out for the work because it could be a better service and likely cost less than maintaining the equipment.
Board members talked about getting help from Lake County crews but it wasn’t clear if that work would be done in a timely manner for morning openings.
Ryder suggested talking with the city or county about contracting, considering leaders there are trying to work on more collaborative efforts among public agencies in the county.
Before finding out about another failed bid to go to a four-day school week, a small group of citizens discussed “fifth day” options Tuesday. At the meeting, there was a discussion of charging $20 per event for students who want to participate in Friday events during the school year. They could possibly sign up for the events through Community Education, pick-and-choose style.
Other costs could possibly be covered by grants the district is hoping to get.