Schools’ budget crises spread
In Meeker’s case, 4-day week might not save enough
The Meeker School District next fall will be the latest in the region to switch to a four-day school week.
The district’s decision is budget driven. It continues to face a financial shortfall for the coming fiscal year even with the savings that will come from the calendar shift, and is considering putting a mill levy override measure on this November’s ballot.
District Superintendent Mark Meyer said the decision not to hold school on Fridays should result in savings while serving as one way of not taking programs away from kids and harming student achievement as the district tries to solve its budget problems.
Both Grand Valley School District 16, which serves the Parachute/Battlement Mesa area, and the Garfield County Re-2 School District, which serves from Rifle to New Castle, are completing their second school years with four-day weeks for students. And both plan to continue with that approach next fall.
Grand Valley Superintendent Ken Haptonstall said the issue would be brought up in a survey the district plans to conduct this summer. But he added, “Most of the time, when we talk to parents and teachers, they’re pretty well engrained in doing a four-day week.”
Meyer said Meeker tried a four-day schedule for a time in the 1990s. He said he understands from talking to locals that “the community became polarized over it.”
The district considered the idea again due to a budget crisis brought on by lower-than-expected property valuations. The crisis was exacerbated by the fact that, unlike in past years when valuation from oil and gas development was so high the district received no state funds, it became eligible for state funding but then experienced what’s called a “negative factor” applied to districts receiving such funds in Colorado due to the state’s own budget limitations.
Most districts already were used to such a factor being applied, but it came as a hard hit to Meeker schools and to the De Beque School District and Weld County’s Pawnee School District, which also have relied heavily on oil and gas tax valuations in recent years.
With all three districts facing the prospect of cuts to their budgets in the middle of the school year, the state Legislature stepped in with one-time assistance. Meyer said Meeker got about $463,000, which “helped immensely” in terms of enabling the district to get through the current fiscal year without having to make significant cuts.
But that assistance didn’t address the district’s longer-term shortfall. Meyer said the board decided one way to address it was through four-day weeks, which will result in saving an estimated $70,000 to $100,000 a year, largely by trimming bus and food service costs by one day each week.
Friday child care
The district also has cut a receptionist position, eliminated a Board of Cooperative Educational Services teaching position by attrition, and imposed a blanket 10 percent cut on spending outside of salary and benefits, which will affect supplies, professional development and contract services. The supply cut “will have an impact on our students — teachers not being able to buy as much for their classroom,” Meyer said.
The district continues to consider more cuts and other adjustments, which could include increasing students’ athletic fees.
If the district passes the budget as it’s currently drafted, it would have to dip into its ending fund balance by about $239,000. That wouldn’t be sustainable over multiple years — hence the consideration of a tax measure this fall. Meyer also is hoping an improving state economy could eventually produce more revenues for the district, but that would be up to the state Legislature next year.
“There’s some hope on the horizon out there,” he said.
He said the district has heard some concerns from parents about trying to obtain child care on Fridays. He said Meeker has a “wonderful” parks and recreation center, and there are discussions about possible activities being offered there on Fridays.
Concerns also have been raised about the ability of younger kids to tolerate spending more time in class during the longer days when school will be in session. But he said the research on the subject “actually shows that those kids are as resilient as older kids in adjusting for those times.”
He said the district also has heard from some parents happy that they’ll get to spend more time with their kids, or won’t have to pull them out of school for things such as medical appointments.
Grand Valley schools are off on Mondays. Haptonstall said that’s to keep the calendar consistent on those weeks when there are holidays that mostly fall on Mondays.
Meyer said Meeker considered that option as well, but chose Fridays instead because students often miss time anyway on Fridays due to activities such as sports. Friday school will be held when Monday holidays occur.
Theresa Hamilton, spokeswoman for Garfield Re-2 schools, said the four-day week there, with Fridays off, saves the district about $480,000 a year. She said when the board adopted the schedule, it made clear it wanted to closely monitor test scores to make sure they weren’t harmed. The first year those scores were “really great,” she said. But the district recently received disappointing third-grade scores, so academics remain an open question.
She said that in light of current state budget conditions, the monetary savings are enough that she would expect the four-day week to remain in place if academic results aren’t affected. The calendar change mostly has been well-received, she said, but added, “Are there people who have (child-care) challenges around that fifth day? For sure, we understand that.”
Haptonstall said the non-school day has helped academics by providing a day when teachers can work on planning and professional development. Meyer said his district also is excited about having extra such time for teachers.
Haptonstall said Grand Valley has shown a lot of academic gains in recent years, from test scores to a Governor’s Distinguished Improvement award for Grand Valley High School. Four-day weeks are just one possible reason why, with the district having taken other steps such as having all high school students take Advanced Placement classes and offering science, math and other classes for elementary students in lieu of days off on Mondays through a grant-funded program.
Despite the savings of a four-day week, the state funding shortfall, lagging enrollment and other factors continue to hamper the budget at Grand Valley, which already has made big staff cuts in recent years. Haptonstall said cuts to sports and elective programs could be next if nothing changes. The school board is considering placing a mill levy override and a bond-issue measure on this fall’s ballot to address educational and upgrades to older buildings.
Voters rejected an override a few years ago, but Haptonstall said the district failed to adequately explain the need for it, something it is working to rectify this time.