Rural school districts using 4-day weeks to save funds

Blackduck high school
The Blackduck school district predicts it will save $68,000 this year by operating on a four-day week.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

When it rained in northern Minnesota a few weeks ago, water leaked into a room in Blackduck High School where students had stored art projects just a few hours earlier. Every project was damaged.

The school district is considering asking voters to approve higher taxes to raise $500,000 to repair the roof. But Superintendent Bob Doetsch is sure that voters would only agree to pay more if they're convinced the district has done everything possible to save money.

To cut costs, the rural Blackduck, Warroad and Ogilvie school districts decided four months ago to implement a four-day school week as did the MACCRAY district did last year. The four districts say the change hasn't solved their budget woes, but the shorter week helped. That's attracted the attention of school officials elsewhere in Minnesota who are considering the change.

In losing one day, the Blackduck district adds about an hour to the remaining four days. In return, it saves money on fuel for buses and on substitute teachers. It also has increased the number of hours that students spend in the classroom -- and rewarded them with three-day weekends.

"Mondays are great; good time to just sleep and lay around," said Michael Dexter, a junior. "The three-day weekend is great."

Doetsch worried the community might not embrace the idea, but he said many have warmed to it. But not everyone likes the shorter week, particularly parents who have to find someone to look after their children on the day off.

Blackduck city councilman Kevin Beck, who owns and operates two gas and convenience stores, said he sees fewer customers on Mondays when school is out. Parents aren't dropping off kids and then filling up their gas tanks on the way out, he said.

Blackduck Superintendent Bob Doetsch
Blackduck Superintendent Bob Doetsch (right) looks for holes on the roof of the school with custodian Carl Nord on Dec. 1, 2009. The roof needs another $518,000 in repairs, which Doetsch says the district can't afford without going to voters.
MPR Photo/Tom Weber

"To say that the district is going to save X-number of dollars isn't entirely accurate," said Beck, whose son goes to the high school. "The school district's budget will save those dollars. [But] the district as a whole isn't going to save those dollars because somebody's going to bear that cost."

Blackduck, Ogilvie and Warroad won't know how well the shorter week works until the spring, when budget estimates take shape and when standardized tests are given. Test scores also will be a key measurement of whether students benefited from a different schedule.

In the MACCRAY district in central Minnesota, the switch last year saved $125,000, which was more than officials expected. But test scores stayed mostly flat.

MACCRAY superintendent Greg Schmidt has fielded scores of phone calls from other superintendents who are kicking the tires on the idea for their districts. His advice: "Don't be afraid of it."

"I don't think you should just make the decision not to look at it because it sounds like a dumb idea," Schmidt said. "We're going to be needing to look more and more at what are some alternatives to what we've always done."

Schmidt and other officials who chose four-day weeks say it's crucial to study the idea. But he said it's not a good fit everywhere.

Schools where most students are on free and reduced lunch programs, for example, might risk those kids missing meals on the days off.

The move also can't just be financially motivated because it does very little to solve budget problems.

It's just as important, the district officials say, to seek academic reasons to switch.

Studies on the effects of four-day weeks are limited because most districts on the schedule are too new to it. But many districts report better morale from having long weekends.

In the Warroad district, where officials dropped Friday classes this year, Superintendent Craig Oftedahl said it makes sense for a rural district like his because student athletes won't miss as much class to play road games.

"Our hockey team travels to Minneapolis or Duluth or wherever," Oftedahl said. "They leave at eight o'clock in the morning. And so their entire educational day is gone."

More than 100 districts across the nation have a four-day week, including the Cimarron, New Mexico district that has done so since 1974.

Minnesota's history with the schedule stretches back to the early 1980s, when 10 districts -- Audubon, Clinton, Erskine, Isle, Mentor, Middle River, Peterson, Rushford, Strandquist, and Tower-Soudan -- went to four-day weeks. All eventually went back to five days.

One of those districts, Isle, is considering going back to the four-day plan.

"We're seeing a decline in enrollment and, consequently, we're looking at what to cut, what to change," said superintendent Michael Conner. "And that is on our list."

The 1980s trial was important to show it can be done, said retired MSU-Mankato professor Prudence Gushwa. Four-day weeks should be even more palatable to the public now, she said.

"If you go back to the 1980s, parents didn't work unusual schedules," Gushwa said. "But today, we have a lot of flexible scheduling and we have people who work different days of the week."

Rochester considered four days last year but decided against it. But small districts in the towns of Clearbrook and Isle are considering it for next year. The Cook County school district in Grand Marais is studying a switch for 2011.

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