District reapplying for four-day weeks
The four-day school week has settled in as something of an institution in the region. However, the structure isn't guaranteed--the Lake Superior School District is in the process of reapplying to the Minnesota Department of Education to be able to maintain its four-day week structure, something the district says helps reduce operating costs and stabilize its budget. The initial approval was granted for just three years. To continue a four-day week, the district must prove that the four-day week did not negatively affect students and that it saved a sufficient amount of money.
"With the reapplication, we're going to look at...how has the four-day week been in the district? We're looking for them to document whether or not it has been working," said Keith Hovis, deputy communications director at Minnesota Department of Education, the agency that reviews the applications.
How did the district get here?
Funding issues are nothing new for the district. As early as 2001, the district was making tough decisions to balance the budget. According to News-Chronicle archives, a $1 million deficit was projected that year, and the school board discussed closing elementary schools in the district and asking for an operating levy, an increase in property taxes for district residents.
The district eventually closed John A. Johnson Elementary and Mary MacDonald Elementary and North Shore Elementary became an independent charter school. They also asked voters for an operating levy in 2006, 2007 and 2010 through mail-in ballots, but all three times the referendums were defeated. The four-day week is a relatively new solution to a problem at least a decade old.
As for the root cause of the district's funding shortages, said Bill Crandall, Lake Superior School District superintendent, revenue is simply not keeping pace with inflation and operating cost increases. He said the biggest culprits are fuel and utilities, staff benefits and unfunded mandates, which are orders from the State such as student testing and teacher evaluation that are not accompanied by the necessary funding to ensure compliance.
In summary, the school budget is complex system affected by many factors.
"School district funding...you have to be pretty financially competent to understand it," said district resident Mark Broin, a retired information technology specialist. Broin, originally from Minnetonka, was heavily involved in the Hopkins School District when his kids were in school. Now a resident of LSSD, he has been actively following the district's finances for years and ran for the school board this year. He was defeated by Shannon Fabini.
Dollars and cents
The district said it saved close to its projected amount of $250,000 by switching to a four-day week. During community meetings last week at Two Harbors High School and William Kelley High School, Crandall gave an overview of the money the district has saved thanks to the four-day week, an amount shy of its goal by about $50,000 per year.
The district saved most of the money thanks to reduced utility costs, fuel and food purchases and custodial and bus driver wages. According to Crandall, the shortfall was due to inflation, fuel and utility cost increases and increases to staff benefits and salaries. He said the savings have allowed the district to maintain about three full-time teaching positions.
"An individual teacher is approximately $80,000 (per year). The four-day week (savings) allows keeping staff members and maintaining programs," Crandall said.
Janelle Jones of Two Harbors, has two kids in district schools--one in third grade and one in eighth. She said she was initially a critic of the four-day week.
"When it came forward originally, I was not for it. I didn't think it would be a good thing...but I stand corrected," Jones said.
She said her kids use the Fridays for extracurricular activities like taking art classes or playing hockey or more family time.
Many extracurricular groups have also taken advantage of free Fridays, scheduling practices and meetings on the day off and long trips on Thursday nights or Fridays.
As for student performance, a key component of the reapplication process, test results show no significant drops. The results are by no means outstanding--in 2012, less than 60% of district students were proficient in math, according to Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results presented by Crandall. However, there were no significant dips in performance after the four-day week began.
Long-term consequences unknown
Four-day weeks have only been a tool in Minnesota for about a decade, but they remain controversial. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has spoken out against the four-day week structure.
"Do we really think our children, going to school four days a week, are going to be able to compete on a level playing field with children in India and China and South Korea who are already going to school 30, 35, 40 more days a year?," Duncan said in 2011.
Broin agreed, saying: "It's shortchanging the children in terms of their capability to have a strong foundation for learning."
The students in the district are in school for the same number of minutes they were on a five-day week, which the district achieved by lengthening school days. Though they're meeting their required time, some parents worry about student exhaustion caused by the longer day.
"The kids, I think, are being pushed and stressed. What are we teaching these kids about how to live their lives? They're on a treadmill from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.," Beth Schield, a district parent, said. Some parents at the THHS community meeting agreed.
Schield homeschools her own children, but she's had foster kids that have attended district schools and she coaches for the cross-country team. She added that she understands the district's decision and that they are in a difficult position.
"I'm really sad that education has to boil down to money," she said.
The future of the four-day week
The district has to file its application with the Minnesota Department of Education by April 15, but there isn't a date set for when the decision will be made.
Part of the reapplication process is holding public meetings and seeking community input. The last meeting will be held Feb. 26 at Two Harbors High School at 6:30 p.m.
Surveys for parents, community members, teachers and students are also available at www.isd381.k12.mn.us.
Want more? Check out this article on www.twoharborsmn.com to find links to letters and other information related to the four-day week.