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Four-day school weeks produce negligible savings, report says

According to the Education Commission of the States, Minnesota’s North Branch Area Public Schools saved just 0.4 percent of its overall budget, or $123,000.

You know those budget-healing four-day school weeks? According to the Education Commission of the States (ECS), the savings they produce is negligible at best.

In recent years, some 120 districts in 17 states have gone to four-day weeks, a shift many projected would save up to 18 percent.

All of the states but one (Washington) belong to ECS, which serves as a policy information and assistance clearinghouse. According to the Denver-based organization, the move saved Minnesota’s North Branch Area Public Schools a princely 0.4 percent of its overall budget, or $123,000. Lake Superior Schools, meanwhile, saved an estimated $200,000-$250,000, or somewhere between 1 percent and 1.2 percent.

In most districts, instructional staff salaries and benefits account for some 65 percent of the budget, but ECS found [PDF] that the cost savings to teacher salaries and benefits was a paltry 0.03 percent. Because districts compensated for the lost day by increasing the length of the rest of the week, teachers were on the job just as many hours.

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Projected savings didn’t even pan out in transportation expenditures, an area where it’s reasonable to assume that cutting out 20 percent of the school week would translate into savings of 20 percent. A few saved that much, but most realized about 10 percent — typically less than half a percent of the budget.

Schools in use on fifth day
“While several factors can account for potential and actual savings,” the group reported, “one stands out: Each district continued to make use of its schools on the fifth non-teaching day. Reported reasons for schools to be open on the fifth day include teacher training, student extracurricular activities (including sports) and additional learning programs for at-risk students. Opening the school on the fifth non-teaching day decreases savings from reduced heating/cooling of the school, transportation and maintenance.”

The two aforementioned Minnesota districts were among six the organization studied to try to determine what savings were reasonable to project. North Branch saved the least of districts surveyed; Bisbee Unified School District in Arizona saved the most at 2.5 percent.

So why, with such a small percentage of the budget at stake, do districts go ahead and shorten the school week?

Small percent, but savings nonetheless
“While cost savings might not be large, they are cost savings nonetheless,” ECS noted. “In the Duval [County, Florida] school district, moving to a four-day week produced only a 0.7% savings, yet that resulted in a budget reduction of $7 million. That $7 million could be used to retain up to 70 teaching positions. When faced with a choice of reducing the school week by one day or letting 70 teachers go, it is easy to see why some school administrators have chosen to go with the four-day week.”

Rep. Carlos Mariani
Rep. Carlos Mariani

The numbers are even grimmer in some Minnesota districts. In Blackduck, where more than half of the 642 students live in poverty, shortening the week saved an estimated $70,000.

In April, the education reform-minded Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, introduced a bill to outlaw four-day weeks in Minnesota. The measure acquired several other sponsors, but the Legislature adjourned without considering it.