Shortened District 51 schedule a real possibility
A month ago, District 51 School Board President Greg Mikolai was 90 percent sure this would be the last school year in the near-term in which local students would attend public schools five days a week.
As the concept of a four-day school week has moved from a slight possibility last year to a real possibility this year, though, Mikolai’s confidence is down to 75 percent. The reality of having to cut an additional $5.1 million to $8.1 million from the 2012—13 district budget has settled in, and so has the concept of cutting bus driver and lunch server hours one day a week and leaving working parents to find someone to watch their children on that day.
“I think we’re still waiting on more data simply because some who were enthusiastic about (a four-day week) are realizing there’s an impact beyond the money we’d save,” Mikolai said.
District 51 School Board members will discuss the possibility of a shortened school week at a meeting Thursday and likely decide whether to adopt a four-day week school calendar at a board meeting March 27. A four-day week is one of four budget-cutting options the district has posed to the community during a series of budget forums that began Feb. 9. At all four forums, more than 70 percent of audience members said they would support a four-day week and more than half of each crowd said they would prefer the switch to remaining on a five-day week model.
Other budget-slicing options mentioned at the forums include closing schools or other district buildings, eliminating extra-curricular activities or raising fees for those activities, and charging for or changing transportation to and from school. The district also will consider administrative cuts, according to District 51 Executive Director of Support Services Melissa Callahan DeVita.
DeVita estimated the district could save $1.5 million to $2 million by cutting student transportation and school meal service once a week with a four-day week schedule. Some utility savings also are built into that estimate, although school leaders have not decided if schools would keep heating, cooling and electricity turned off throughout the three-day weekend. Teachers may work a half-day on Fridays, and the district would have to decide if it would continue to allow community groups to use schools on Fridays and Saturdays for sports and other activities.
A group of about 20 District 51 teachers researched calendar possibilities earlier this school year and on Feb. 13 presented the School Board with three options, two of them with four-day weeks. One calendar would extend the school day to eight hours and the other would extend it to 7 1/2 hours. Currently, elementary students spend six hours a day in school and secondary students are in school for 6 1/2 hours each weekday.
Jennifer Smyth, a Grand Mesa Middle School teacher who served on the research committee, said she is in favor of the four-day week because it would increase the amount of hours teachers spend with students. She said she’s not worried about teachers losing kids’ attention during the day as long as teachers keep classes lively.
“It’s a cost savings and it’s a healthy chunk of cost savings. I don’t know where the School Board will go with it,” Smyth said.
Her husband, Mesa Valley Education Association President Jim Smyth, said the teacher advocacy organization surveyed members about a four-day week a year ago. Eighty percent of members who responded liked the idea, he said.
“Mostly because it increases contact time with kids. That’s a big boon for us when there are cuts elsewhere. Any way we can get more time, the better,” he said.
School Board member Ann Tisue said savings are the primary reason to look at a four-day week. But in order to pursue those savings, she said she would have to be convinced issues like the cost of day care for parents, having productive ways for teens to spend their day off, and any potential impacts on student learning would not become major problems.
“I don’t want to see our kids sacrificed for money,” Tisue said.
Fellow board member Jeff Leany said he has yet to take a stance on four-day weeks. But his children who attend Caprock Academy love being on a four-day schedule, he said. Caprock students also have a shorter summer than District 51 students.
“I like that the kids don’t have to be re-educated” after three months off, Leany said.
He added he wants to see how many school days and contact hours are in a four-day week scenario for the district before deciding if it could work for other schools.
“There are still a lot of loose ends,” Leany said.
School Board member Leslie Kiesler said she is still thinking about how to vote on a four-day week. Attempts to reach board member Harry Butler were unsuccessful.
If the School Board votes this month to adopt a four-day week for the 2012—13 school year, District 51 would become the largest district in Colorado and in the United States to follow such a schedule. Marion County Public Schools in Ocala, Fla., voted last June to adopt a four-day week in 2012—13 and become the largest district in the nation, at nearly twice the enrollment of District 51, to have such a calendar. The board later canceled that decision and voted last week to adopt a five-day calendar.
At 8,971 students as of this October, Pueblo 70 School District became the largest district in the state to have a four-day week in 2010.
Several School Board members have said they worry about the lack of research findings on how four-day weeks affect larger school districts. Mikolai said that is one factor among many the board will take into consideration this month.
“It’s something we’ve got to look at. Does it work in this model? This is all stuff we really have to hash out,” he said.