Minnesota schools find it harder to shorten their school weeks

Mrs. Churchill's class
Many school administrators in Minnesota are considering switch to four-day weeks as a cost-saving measure, but the process is difficult and complex.
MPR photo/Tom Weber

People in the Sleepy Eye Public Schools District in southwest Minnesota watched with interest in recent years as 11 rural districts switched to four-day weeks.

District officials touted the budget savings of dropping one day of class: less money spent on busing, hourly workers, substitutes and electricity.

Faced with his school district's own budget problems, Superintendent John Cselovski also proposed going to a four-day week to save $80,000 a year.

In February he asked the Minnesota Department of Education to approve the change. The department's recent answer: the request was denied by State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

"The community was in favor, but the commissioner didn't feel it was appropriate for Sleepy Eye to be on a four-day week for next year," Cselovski said.

Minnesota school officials considering the change say it's becoming harder to convince state education officials to allow them to shorten their school week. They note that the state's application process is much more complex than it was in the past.

The state's reasons denial of the Sleepy Eye request were spelled out in a letter from Cassellius. Among them was a concern that half of the district's 600 students who qualify for free and reduced lunch wouldn't get a meal at school one day of the week.

Cassellius also expressed concern that, with a shorter week, student academic achievement wouldn't improve.

Cassellius also wrote that she did not think it was worth reconfiguring the school week, just to save $80,000 a year — money she said the district could find in its $1.6 million reserve fund.

"To me that didn't create an urgency around having to make the large structural changes," she wrote.

Cassellius' denial of Sleepy Eye's four-day week, and the reasons behind it, have school districts already on that shorter schedule now wondering what will happen to them.

Some are in submitting renewed applications to continue operating four days a week.

Among them is the Blackduck School District in northern Minnesota.

Superintendent Bob Doetsch said going to four days a week has saved his district $123,000 in each of the last three years.

Doetch said student test scores have improved during that time. Despite fewer days in school, district students spend more minutes in the classroom because of longer days, he said.

But that's harder to prove to the state than it was three years ago when Blackduck first requested a shorter school week. Back then, Doetch sent in an eight-page application. The one he sent in last month was nearly 50 pages.

"It's changed," Doetch said of the application process. "It's become much more difficult, much more complex. The state is very particular about the questions they ask."

That's what Warroad's superintendent also discovered when he spent nearly all of this school year working on a 275-page application to remain on a four-day schedule.

Given that state officials requested more information, Craig Oftedahl packed his application with data on student test scores, surveys on the community's attitude toward the shorter school week, and anticipated budget savings.

Oftedahl thinks the application is strong, but fears it's not strong enough considering what happened to Sleepy Eye's request.

"I'm very concerned," he said. "Extremely nervous."

Oftedahl thinks the more complicated application process is a way for the state to micromanage school districts.

"They're creating a situation where they're basically dictating how and what and where and when we can do the things that have been handled by local school board and community action in the past," he said.

Cassellius insists that she is still a strong supporter of local control. But she also said school districts need to meet a higher bar than they did in the past to drop one day of school a week.

"You want to be able to try all kinds of different things to address any budget deficit or address achievement needs," she said. "You want to make sure that if you make a drastic decision like this that it's really a last resort type of decision."

Cassellius agrees many Minnesota schools have continued to do well academically with four-day weeks. But she echoes national educational experts who say not enough research has been done on the short and long term academic achievement of schools on four-day weeks.

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