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June 1, 2017

Does a four-day school week sacrifice learning in the interest of a balanced budget? Part I: Slim savings

The four-day schedule is not an entirely novel idea—first used in the 1930s, the system gained popularity in the 1970s as surging oil prices drove districts to seek alternative solutions to cut their growing transportation budgets. More recently, shifts in the definition of instructional time by many states toward instructional hours rather than instructional days has opened the door to the resurgence of the four-day week. This change grants districts the flexibility to implement a calendar with fewer, longer school days, generally adding about 45 minutes on to the end of the school day.

In the wake of the Great Recession, states continue to make deep cuts to education budgets, leaving already struggling communities to find innovative solutions. Today, about 150 districts in 21 states have adopted the calendar. A potential cost saver like the four-day week can be appealing under tight budgetary circumstances, but how much money does a four-day week really save? Does the four-day week hold up as a viable option for districts struggling with tight budgets?

2017-06-01_11-35-57Proponents of the four-day school week foresee significant savings, particularly in the areas of transportation, food service, and building operations. By eliminating these costs from one whole day of the usual five-day school week, districts predict a 20% savings in each area. However, each of these areas individually makes up a relatively small portion of a district’s overall budget. Cutting transportation completely for one day of the week, a commonly indicated source of potential savings in rural districts, leads to only a 0.85% savings to the overall budget.

The largest portion of the budget (approximately 60.82% on average) is dedicated to instruction, primarily made up of teacher salaries and benefits, which are not affected by a move to a four-day schedule. Despite the initial inclination of many proponents, teachers continue to provide the same number of instructional hours and thus receive the same salary and benefits. The largest portion of the budget, then, is not impacted by a shift to a four-day week.

In fact, estimates suggest that a four-day week brings a maximum potential savings of only about 5.43% to the overall district budget. Most districts that have already made the shift have seen much lower savings. A study out of Oklahoma, a state that has been making national headlines for its controversial use of the four-day week, recently found no evidence that districts that switched saved money at all.

While budgetary considerations have been the primary driver of the four-day week’s recent spike in popularity, these suggested savings appear to be unfounded. Despite these limited savings, districts continue to shift to a four-day schedule. What impact might this change have on students and staff? What considerations must districts weigh before making the change? Next week, we will examine the potential academic effects of changing to a four-day week.






September 16, 2015

Budgets, data and honest conversation

Balancing school budgets in a time of shortfalls is a thankless job. Whatever gets cut will nonetheless have its champions, many of whom are willing to let their unhappiness known. Really loud. But one of the nation’s largest school districts is meeting this challenge with a new app that gives the community a channel for telling school leaders exactly what expenditures they want preserved. The hitch – users keep their preferred items only by eliminating others.  In this way, the app delivers an object lesson in how really tough these decisions are.

Fairfax County school district in Virginia serves nearly 190,000 students with an annual budget of $2.6 billion. Despite the community’s affluence, enrollments are rising faster than revenues, and the district is facing a $50-100 million deficit. An earlier citizen task force was charged with recommending ways to close this gap. After reviewing the data, the task force suggested, among other things, eliminating high school sports and band. To say the proposal was not well received is to state the obvious. And the public howls and teeth-gnashing have yet to subside.

So what’s a broke district to do? Give the data to the community. Fairfax released this web-based budget tool to the public this week as a means to call the question: In order to keep [your priority here], what do we get rid of? Users are able to choose from more than 80 budget items to cut in seven categories: “school staffing and schedules,” “instructional programs,” “nonacademic programs,” “instructional support,” “other support,” “employee compensation” and “new or increased fees.”  Each item has a dollar figure attached and the goal is to reduce the budget by $50 million.

I happen to be a Fairfax resident so I was happy to test-drive this web tool. The first thing that struck me was the near absence of low-hanging fruit. All of the big ticket items hurt, mostly because the savings come from reduction in staff or valuable instruction time. Increase elementary class size by one student: $12.9 million. Reduce daily course offerings in high school from seven to six: $25 million. Reduce kindergarten from full-day to half-day: $39 million. Yikes! Given these choices, I could see why eliminating high school sports at nearly $9 million could start to look like a lesser evil.

On the other hand, items that seemed to do the least damage to the educational mission also saved a relative pittance. Raise student parking fees by $50: $300,000.  Reduce district cable TV offerings: $100,000. Increase community use fees: $70,000. Clearly, the nickel-and-dime strategy was not going to get me close to $50 million.

In the end, I came within the 10 percent margin of hitting the target (while keeping high school sports) and I submitted my preferences. But I’ll be honest. They include some choices that I do not feel the least bit happy about. And that’s the point. In 2010, CPE published a report on the impact of the recession on school budgets across the country. The title, Cutting to the Bone, pretty much tells the story. The current Fairfax deficit represents only 2 percent of its yearly budget. But after years of cost-cutting, there’s no fat left to trim.

Clearly, if I were a school board member, I would want to know more about the impact of these programs and policies before making any final decisions. But presenting the data on their cost and what the dollars buy – as this tool does — is a really good way to educate the community about the challenge and engage them in an honest conversation about how they can best serve their students, especially when revenues run short. — Patte Barth

Filed under: Data,funding,Public education — Tags: , , — Patte Barth @ 10:11 am






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