March 15, 2010

Bill seeks savings by allowing four-day school weeks



Staff Writer

Local school districts could adopt a four-day week to cut heating and transportation costs under a bill to be introduced in the Legislature's next session.

''It's an automatic 25 percent reduction in transportation costs. That's a huge savings,'' said Sen. Nancy Sullivan, D-Saco, who plans to submit the bill as emergency legislation in January.

Currently, Maine students are required to be in school at least 175 days. Under Sullivan's bill, the state would instead require that students be in school a certain number of hours, giving local districts the option of a four-day school week.

''It seems to me that everyone is screaming in Augusta about finding a better way,'' Sullivan said. ''This is it.''

Switching to an hours-based requirement would work out to teaching an extra 90 minutes a day, she said. Some districts could choose to adapt a four-day week for only part of the year, much as some northern school districts make accommodations for potato harvesting season.

There are clear logistical issues, particularly with younger children, Sullivan acknowledged. Child-care needs would shift, but parents already make those adjustments for holidays and snow days, she said. There also would be an impact on sports programs and other extracurricular activities.

All of these are things that would need to be worked out at the local level, Sullivan said.

''I'm not about to say that it's not without issues. For some systems, it may not work,'' she said. ''I suspect there will be many people who will raise objections. This is major change, and no one is comfortable with change. But we need to change in order to be able to survive.''

The Maine Department of Education, which is in the process of updating school approval rules, is considering a similar proposal, said spokesman David Connerty-Marin.

''Obviously, it has come up. We have heard from a few districts, asking if four-day weeks are possible,'' he said.

Last year the issue was raised because districts were trying to catch up after an unusually high number of snow days. This year the concern has been the spike in heating and transportation costs. Rural school districts that have buses traveling long distances have been particularly hard-hit by high fuel prices.

''Because it is still in discussion, we're not ready yet to take a position on whether or not it's a good idea,'' Connerty-Marin said. ''There are issues of child care and sports schedules, and then of course we'd want to look at the research on the hours of instruction per day and what impact that has on students.''

Sullivan said that her more than 25 years as a seventh-grade social sciences teacher tell her that a four-day week could be implemented without hurting the academic mission of the schools. In some cases, she said, it might even help.

''It allows you more hands-on time,'' she said.

Officials at the Maine Education Association, the union that represents about 25,000 public education employees, said they were open to considering the plan.

''I know there are certainly a lot of discussions going on about ways to save energy and make school energy-efficient,'' said MEA Executive Director Mark Gray. ''We would certainly be open to looking at the issue.''

Gray said there has been controversy in the past when changes to the school year were proposed, but those concerns involved changes to teachers' salaries. Rescheduling academic instruction to longer periods of up to 90 minutes, done under what is known as the block system, has already been adopted in many schools, he noted.

''What some of our members have talked about is that (block scheduling) worked well with some subjects and not so well with others,'' he said. ''The best place to have this conversation is at the local level.''

A four-day school week has been adopted by more than 100 districts in 16 states, but that represents a small fraction of the nation's roughly 15,000 districts, said an official at the Virginia-based National School Boards Association.

''We're still talking about a small number of districts, but there certainly is a lot more attention right now about this,'' said Director of Federal Affairs Marc Egan. ''Everyone is looking at how districts are dealing with the rising cost of heating and transportation and food.''

Because of the small number of districts doing a four-day week, there is mostly anecdotal evidence about its impact. For some districts it has been a success, while others have gone back to a five-day week.

''The bottom line is that this is the kind of decision that has to go to the community,'' Egan said.

While a four-day school week would clearly cut transportation costs, there are other things to consider, said Suzanne Lukas, superintendent of School Administrative District 6, which consists of 12 schools and serves 4,000 students in Buxton, Hollis, Limington, Standish and Frye Island.

''We need to be very careful. Our business is educating children,'' Lukas said. ''I would need to be convinced that children could learn as much in four days as in five days.''

She also raised concerns about the impact on some school workers. While the change wouldn't impact teacher hours or salaries, a short week would probably cut into some employees' hours.

''A bus driver isn't going to drive those miles, our food service workers won't be cooking those meals,'' Lukas said. Janitorial staff also might have fewer hours.

''That could have a devastating impact on those workers,'' she said. ''There are economic implications that are sort of hidden in this.''

If Sullivan's bill is approved rapidly, it could hypothetically be signed by the governor in time for schools to try it out this academic year.

''We have an obligation to make the decisions that are academically and economically sound,'' she said. ''I'm not changing the standards.''

Staff Writer Noel K. Gallagher can be contacted at 791-6387 or at:

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