By Michael H. Oâ€™Donnell
School is back in session all over Southeast Idaho, and for a majority of the areaâ€™s districts that means four-day school weeks.
Beginning with a recession that gained ground in 2009 and faced with reduced state funding, dozens of school districts in rural areas of Idaho trimmed their school weeks and eliminated Friday classes to save money for hot lunch, utilities, transportation and substitute teachers. This fall, 42 of Idahoâ€™s 115 public school districts and 11 charter schools are using a four-day week.
Among them are Marsh Valley, Snake River, Grace, Firth, North Gem, Soda Springs, Preston, Oneida County, Rockland and both the Blackfoot and Bingham Academy charter schools.
State funding may be improving, but the districts are sticking with the shorter school week.
Longtime clerk and business manager at Marsh Valley School District GaLene Andersen said initially the district did it to save money. Cutting out bus travel on Fridays and the ability to lower the heat and cut lights in the districtâ€™s four elementary schools scattered across southern Bannock County did save money.
Andersen said those savings still exist despite what was presented by a June study done by the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho and funded by the J.R. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation.
â€śContrary to expectations, some districts saw their costs rise as a result of the need for additional enrichment activities and after-school snacks during the extended day,â€ť researchers Paul Hill and Georgia Heyward wrote in the studyâ€™s conclusions.
Marsh Valley made the switch eight years ago, and Andersen said although savings may have been reduced over time, they still exist compared with running buses and heating buildings five days a week.
Andersen agrees that the savings werenâ€™t huge because 80 percent of any school districtâ€™s budget is consumed by salaries and fringe benefits for faculty, administration and non-certified staff.
Teachers meet their contract requirements, and students have adequate instructional time because the days they do attend school are longer. Andersen said the main appeal has been the popularity of four-day weeks with parents.
â€śDaycare centers arenâ€™t as prevalent in rural districts,â€ť Andersen said. â€śItâ€™s been very popular. It would be tough to go back.â€ť
Although she is now retired from the Rockland School District, Bonnie Anderson was clerk for 21 years and saw the transition from five to four-day weeks.
â€śIt did save the district money,â€ť Anderson said, adding that the first-year savings were about $50,000, which is a lot for a small district.
She said the shift did hurt people who were paid hourly salaries because their work week was cut short, but people have made the adjustment since the shift in 2009.
â€śIt was our way to keep from cutting programs,â€ť Anderson said about the shift. â€śAt first there were people who were skeptical, but the convenience and scheduling of sports makes it a good thing.â€ť
To compensate for losing a day of classwork, Rockland students now attend school until 3:40 p.m. instead of 3 p.m. Monday through Thursday.
The business manager of Snake River School District, Chris Nelson, agrees that the four-day school week is extremely popular with both parents and students. Snake River made the switch in 2010.
â€śWeâ€™d have a real fight on our hands if we tried to go back to five days,â€ť Nelson said.
Heâ€™s been managing the districtâ€™s finances for 26 years and said the initial savings when the move to four days was made was real. He said an unexpected savings is the drop in substitute costs because contract teachers miss fewer days.
â€śTransportation was a big savings for us,â€ť Nelson said. â€śWe saved about $150,000.â€ť
He said the overall savings may drop from year to year, but overall the elimination of a Friday school day does save the district money.
A criticism contained in the June study funded by the Albertson Foundation was that none of the districts surveyed had assessed the affects of a four-day school week on student achievement.
â€śThis means that the educational consequences of the four-day week, at present, are virtually unknown,â€ť the study stated.
However, during the last year the Idaho Department of Education gave out star ratings for student performance in school districts, many of the smaller districts in Southeast Idaho on four-day schedules received the highest rankings. Rockland, North Gem, Malad, Grace and Shelley high schools were ranked at the top in the state with five stars.
Idahoâ€™s 5-Star Ranking System took into account student academic progress each year even if standardized test score goals were not met and measured the advanced opportunities that students enroll in and complete, including Advanced Placement courses, dual credit courses, and Tech Prep courses.