When the Pelican Rapids School District needed to trim spending in 2010 after making painful cuts in previous years, district leaders didn't want to cut teachers or academic programs.
So they decided to give students Mondays off as a way to save on transportation costs.
Since then, the move has saved the district about $100,000 a year, or just over one percent of its $9 million annual budget. But the shorter school week hasn't hurt students academically because with longer school days, students spend more time in class than they did in a five-day week, Superintendent Deb Wanek said.
"The perception is if you go to a four-day school week that's too bad; you've had to cut so much," she said. "In reality we have a very strong program even with a four-day school week."
The Pelican Rapids district is among 10 rural Minnesota districts that cut one day a week out of their schedules to save money. Other school district officials also say a four-day schedule works well for students and their communities.
But Minnesota Department of Education officials would like to see the shortened weeks go the way of the one-room schoolhouse.
When Wanek asked the department last year for permission to use a four-day schedule for another three years, state Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius approved the request only through this school year, and in a letter strongly suggested the district consider going back to a five-day week. Cassellius told five other Minnesota districts the same thing.
"The commissioner is in this letter asking them to consider what is best for their students, to re-look at how their schedule and their finances and how it's working for their community so that the choice is made with the best interest of students in mind," department spokesperson Josh Collins said.
Collins said the department doesn't favor four-day weeks, unless they improve the performance of students. He also said districts that dropped a day to save money a few years ago should be in better financial shape now because of $500 million in new education funds approved by lawmakers last Legislative session.
In Pelican Rapids, it's the budget savings that has really sold Wanek on the four-day week.
"If we go back to a five-day school week, it is going to be a reduction in our fund balance," she said. "We can't maintain that kind of spending anymore."
The district received a grant to offer childcare for younger students on Mondays. Students who are struggling can come in for tutoring that day as well.
Most families appreciate the three-day weekend, Wanek said, because they can make doctor and dentist appointments without taking students out of school.
State education officials also want the Lake Superior School District in Two Harbors and Silver Bay to consider going back to a five-day week.
Superintendent Bill Crandall is worried the change could put the district in financial trouble in the future. The short week saves Lake Superior $250,000 a year.
Crandall thinks the decision on whether to select a four- or five-day decision should be left up to the community.
"We have local control," he said. "We'd like to be able to meet the needs of our students based on what we see as a good fit for both our students and our community."
This struggle over school schedules isn't confined to Minnesota.
As of a few years ago, about 120 districts nationwide had four-day weeks, said Mike Griffith, a school finance consultant with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. He said it's hard to tell how many districts do so today because such schedules are not regularly tracked. But in general, Griffith said, states are turning away from four-day weeks as tax revenue increases and budgets improve.
"They're making it harder for districts to move to the four-day school week and they're trying to prevent those at a five-day week from moving over to it," he said.
State education officials say they will consider the pleas of districts that want to remain on a four-day week into the future.
The North Branch district north of the twin Cities likely won't be one of them. Its officials say they'll go back to five days in the fall if the school board approves the move.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misidentified Forest Lake as one of the Minnesota school districts that's considering switching from a four-day school week to a five-day week. North Branch is the district considering a change to its school schedule, not Forest Lake.