PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. - Would switching to a four-day school week help the Palm Beach County School District eliminate a possible $50 million budget shortfall?
It would not even come close or be worth seriously considering, according to a recent analysis sent to administrators and a citizens committee. They are desperately searching for ways to cut costs for the 2011-12 school year.
Putting all classes on a Monday-through-Thursday schedule would save about $6.8 million in expenses for bus driver and aide salaries, diesel fuel and electricity, the new review found. Making the change for high schools only, as a less disruptive alternative, would save $1.7 million.
Given the limited financial benefit and concerns cited by educators — inconveniencing parents, possibly hurting academics and athletic programs — the idea of a four-day school week was put near the bottom of a list of measures to solve the budget crisis.
"I just don't think there's a good argument for it, and certainly not with these little bits of savings, when we're looking for much more," said Faith Schullstrom, a retired educator from New York who serves on the budget advisory committee that the School Board created this year.
Lynne McGee, principal of Seminole Ridge High in The Acreage, added: "It's taking everything that we have become accustomed to and throwing up the apple cart."
Four-day school weeks are popping up from Arizona to South Dakota to Georgia as cash-strapped districts opt to save money by idling buses and shutting off lights. A 2008 survey by the American Association of School Administrators found about 25 percent of districts either made the change or have considered it.
In Florida, abbreviated school weeks can be found in a few places. In Palm Beach County, Riviera Beach Maritime Academy charter high school started a four-day schedule in January, becoming the first and only public school in the county to offer it. Pompano Beach High in Broward also uses a Monday-Thursday week.
Schools are required under state law to provide the same amount of teaching time over four days as they would in the traditional five-day schedule. It's 720 hours per school year for kindergarten through third grade, and 900 hours for grades 4-12, according to a state Department of Education rule established last year.
A shortened school week would reduce the Palm Beach County School District's transportation and utility costs, said Chief Financial Officer Michael Burke.
Based on the five-day week calendar — or 180-day school year — the district now spends $25.7 million in bus driver and bus attendant salaries and benefits, and $6.5 million in fuel.
A four-day week — or 144-day school year — for all grade levels would drop the cost to $21.8 million in salaries and $5.2 million in fuel.
The total savings for transportation with the four-day week is estimated at $5.2 million.
Closing all schools for 36 days also would save $45,000 per day in electricity, or a total of $1.6 million, according to the district analysis.
There could be other benefits too, both financial and educational. Districts using four-day weeks have reported better teacher attendance, reducing the need for paying substitutes to cover classes.
At Riviera Beach Maritime, the 140-student school turned to four-day weeks to help students in several ways, said Assistant Principal Mariella Daniel. School hours are 8 a.m. to 2:55 p.m., with a 25-minute lunch break.
The schedule gives students more time for part-time jobs, school activities and dual-enrollment programs that enable them to earn college credits. It aims at reducing discipline problems and student absenteeism.
"We are making it work," Daniel said.
But Judy Klinek, chief academic officer for the school district, said there appear to be several negatives with four-day weeks, beginning with big objections from parents, and teachers who are parents.
"It has been an unpopular option with parents," she said. "This idea needs to be developed with community members and parents and embraced by all before it would be a solution."
"Our system of education has been based on five days a week and to change it to four is a dramatic shift," Klinek said.
Among the cons:
Student attention spans drop with longer school days. "The longer day may not be productive, especially for middle school students," said Klinek, a former middle school principal. "Two extra hours of teaching, they're not as focused."
Safety concerns. Students could be walking home in the dark, depending on the time of year. On non-school weekdays, more students would be left unsupervised.
"I don't want to be a part of putting 13- to 18-year olds on the street an extra day to do things that aren't in their best interests," Schullstrom said
during a budget committee meeting last month.
Student participation in athletic events could be affected, because extended class schedules would conflict with game times. Also, students may have to miss competitions on Fridays.
While student absenteeism could improve, there's a potentially greater risk associated with the days that students still miss. Being absent one day during a four-day week means losing more than one day of learning, because those days are longer.
Teachers would require additional, costly training in delivering lessons over longer class periods, and teachers with second jobs could have trouble getting to them because of longer school days.
Ken Cohen of the citizens committee said it was hard to embrace the idea, after seeing the district's cost analysis and hearing the potential advantages and disadvantages.
"I don't know that pioneering this is what we want to be doing," he said.