Burnsville weighs shorter school weeks as part of cost-saving plan

/ 12 April 2012 / jennifer

Herón Márquez Estrada and Mary Lynn Smith, Star Tribune, April 12, 2012 –

Looking for savings, district may lengthen days, use four-day weeks.

As part of an effort to save $5 million next year, the Burnsville School District might give students every other Monday off or even send students home for the summer before Memorial Day.

“That’s ridiculous if you work full time,” said Joy Smetanka, who has three children in the district. “Every other Monday? I wouldn’t do that. If they do that, they are going to have a lot of families moving out of the district.”

If board members give students regular days off, Burnsville likely would be the first metro-area school district and the largest in the state to use a four-day school week on a regular basis or end the school year so early.

“This would be the first time for a major district to take this on,” said Ron Hill, chairman of the Burnsville school board. “We just can’t keep doing things the same old way.”

The ideas are part of a proposed budget plan to lower costs by cutting 17 school days from next year’s calendar. District officials are quick to point out that the actual number of instructional hours for children will remain the same, as mandated by state law, but would be spread over 155 days instead of 172.

The lost in-school days would be made up by extending the remaining school days by about 36 minutes, according to Ruth Dunn, the district spokeswoman.

Districts throughout the state are challenged nearly every year with the prospect of making drastic cuts or raising local taxes to offset rising costs and state cuts. At least 20 districts — mostly small school systems outstate — have switched to the four-day week, said Charlie Kyte, former executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

“The only real reason districts look at it is financial desperation,” Kyte said. But in many cases, the switches included other creative measures that provided benefits to students.

Parents, however, don’t always embrace the idea at first.

“No one likes change,” Kyte said. “The experience the districts have had is that parents are upset. Then they adapt. And a year later, they’re saying this is working really well.”

The Burnsville-Eagan-Savage school board, which first broached the idea at a workshop last week, will start hard discussions on the ideas Thursday, starting at 6:30 p.m. at the Diamondhead Education Center in Burnsville.

Under one possible calendar, those 17 days would be sprinkled throughout the academic year, creating a four-day school week just about every other week.

In another possible scenario, a number of three- and four-day weekends would be created as well as having teacher development days the last two weeks of school. The last day of student instruction would be May 24.

“This is just a proposal,” Dunn said on Wednesday. “We’re just thinking outside the box.”

Hill said that the effect on child care would be one of the most important issues that the district will consider before deciding to make any changes.

“I think child care is going to be an important factor,” he said. “You can’t make the change if there are enough people telling you it will be too difficult.”

When North Branch school officials switched to a four-day school week two years ago, parents were upset about finding day care for their children.

“But I can tell you that the day-care concerns go away because parents always take care of their kids. They find a relative or another day care,” Superintendent Deb Henton said. “That’s not to say that it’s not a burden, but for the vast majority of our students, they’re spending extra time with family members, and that’s been a positive.”

Some parents like the three-day weekends with their kids. Older students sometimes use the time to work. And some students take advantage of enrichment classes, while others who are struggling get extra help, Henton said.

In addition, some of the money saved by the switch to four days has allowed the district to change their kindergarten program from a full-day program every other day to a half-day program every day, Henton said.

“The majority of parents like the four-day week,” she said. “But I would be remiss if I didn’t say that some parents still wish we were on a five-day schedule.”

Other districts also have tried or discussed reducing the number of days that students physically spend in their schools.

In 2002 Osseo and Elk River considered such moves to save millions but backed off after parents expressed outrage about additional child-care costs.

Early indications are that the same issues are going to crop up in Burnsville, which will be holding a series of meetings on the ideas over the next month or so before adopting a new budget and calendar in June.

“This is going to raise hell with a lot of parents,” said Joel Smetanka, Joy’s husband. “There’s nobody in the world that thinks adding 35 minutes will make up for missing a full day every other week. I think it meets the letter of the law but not the intent.”

The district expects to reach the bulk of its savings from lower transportation costs, with not running buses so often.

Also, Dunn said, there would be reduced food service expenses as well as lower utility bills, fewer custodial costs and not as many teacher aides or substitution teachers used.

The ideas are part of a long-term district goal of reducing costs by about $15 million over the next three years.

hme@startribune.com • 952-746-3281mlsmith@startribune.com • 612-673-4788