Four-day school weeks, once the last stop for cash-strapped rural school districts like Warroad and MACCRAY, are now finding their way into metro districts. North Branch is considering conversion to a four-day week next year. Can other financially troubled districts like Robbinsdale, Brooklyn Center or Minneapolis be far behind?
The problem is simple. Minnesota has cut aid to schools by an inflation-adjusted 14 percent since 2003. None of the state’s school districts can survive with that kind of a cut to their revenue unless they have very wealthy property owners who are willing to raise taxes to make up for the state’s inadequate funding. Understandably, the number of those wealthy districts is few.
North Branch is not one of those wealthy districts. District demographer Hazel Reinhardt told school officials last week that in 2000, more than 200 new building permits were granted in North Branch. In 2009, that number was less than six. Even if residential development were to increase in the next 10 years, the enrollment in 2019-20 will be below the current year’s enrollment.
While North Branch holds its own against losing students to charter schools – only 1.8 percent of North Branch students choose charter schools versus a state average of just over 3 percent – the district loses 291 students to open enrollment while gaining 160. In 2008-09, 3 percent of students went to private schools and 3 percent were homeschooled.
The financial problems are not new and the district has made moves to correct the issue. Last week at the first of three meetings on the four-day school week, Superintendent Deb Henton laid out the problem in stark detail: “We see budget cuts because of declining enrollment and because of flat funding from the state and a failed levy attempt. We’ve cut administration. We’ve cut teachers. We’ve cut support staff. We’ve changed our transportation system. We’re on an energy-efficiency program. Now we’re looking at closing a school and going to a four-day week. So our options are getting more and more limited all the time.”
Henton said the district will save more than $150,000 annually with a four-day week. That sounds good until she mentions it is less than 15 percent of the $1.3 million North Branch must cut to meet its budget next year.
There are four Minnesota districts currently under a four-day school week. MACCRAY, in Maynard, Clara City and Raymond, is in its second year of offering a short week. Oglivie, Warroad and Blackduck are in their first year. Clearbrook-Gonvick and A.C.G.C. in Atwater, Cosmos and Grove City are among the districts that are considering four-day weeks as well.
But none of these districts are as large as North Branch, nor are any near the Twin Cities. Districts using a four-day school week save money through transportation and fuel cutbacks -a strategy that favors rural districts with large transportation areas and small budgets. While North Branch is a large district, the savings are only a small percentage of overall costs. The state Department of Education must approve plans to switch to four-day weeks. Their main concern is that the number of yearly education hours is met, no matter how the week is arranged.
According to superintendents interviewed in MACCRAY, Warroad and Blackduck, parents are adapting to the four-day week. It gives them more time with their families, offers a weekday to go to doctor appointments or for the older students to work. They say concerns over daycare and homework have been calmed after the first month or so of the school year. MACCRAY’s superintendent said there was no significant change in test scores after the first year of the shortened week, making the plan education-neutral.
Four-day school weeks are very rare in the United States. Only a few rural school districts in Louisiana, Wyoming and South Dakota use the four-day week.
The question to be asked is not whether it can be done, because it can. The question is why? Why do students and parents in North Branch have to consider the four-day week in the first place? It does no educational good to the students. Parents have to find an extra day of daycare – a costly and difficult task for many two-income families in North Branch who have no nearby family.
The only reason this is being considered is money. The state of Minnesota will not adequately fund education and has not done so for nearly a decade. Students across the state suffer because of this lack of political will. If North Branch is considering the four-day week, then other cash-strapped districts in the metro will not be far behind. If, like North Branch, they too can save 15 percent off overall cuts, they will do so.
School districts should not have to make such a choice. Our once excellent education system is sliding toward the middle, and the increased use of the four-day school week is a glaring indicator that we’re headed in the wrong direction.
Unless state leaders begin to look at a balanced approach to our budget problems-one that embraces some revenue increases as well as necessary cuts-Minnesotans are likely to see more four-day school weeks, higher property taxes, and fewer resources for their children’s education.
North Branch parents and students deserve better. Minnesotans deserve better.