- Associated Press - Friday, September 22, 2017

EVERTON, Mo. (AP) - The Everton School District, set in a sea of farmland in southeastern Dade County, is on the rise.

In 2012, the district’s Annual Performance Report from the state bottomed out at 60 percent, putting it in danger of losing accreditation. The report is a combination of test scores, graduation rates and other measures, and Everton was scoring below average on many of those markers. Enrollment was declining, teacher turnover was a concern and the rural district also was in a financial crunch. Voters had shot down a bond request, and the more than 60-year-old high school building was falling apart.

Drastic measures were needed.

Among those, the district did away with Mondays.

In 2013, Everton became one of the first districts in Missouri - and the first in southwest Missouri - to shift from a five-day to a four-day school week, hoping to save funds on transportation, food and fuel to heat and cool its buildings, The Joplin Globe reported.

“We needed to find some ways to save money,” said Karl Janson, Everton superintendent.

Five years later, it appears that Everton was on the cutting edge of a trend.

Many other southwest Missouri districts have adopted the policy in the past three years, including Jasper, Miller, East Newton and Pierce City; other districts have considered it but not taken the leap, and it’s a safe bet that more will consider it.

So many districts were doing it in Oklahoma that State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister this spring dubbed it a “contagion.”

While not every district is in the same straits in which Everton found itself five years ago, many districts still wrestle with tight budgets and are looking for ways to save money.

However, a Globe review of school finance data submitted to the state shows that the four-day week isn’t a cure-all for financial woes.

It has, though, yielded other returns.

These days, on the other side of that turnaround, Janson talks more about the impact of the four-day schedule on teacher morale and student discipline than the bottom line.

Last year, its APR score had risen into the 90s. Citing Everton’s “change in educational climate,” the Missouri Association of Rural Education named it the outstanding rural school district of 2016.

“I don’t want to give all the credit to the four-day week, but it certainly doesn’t hurt,” Janson said.

Many superintendents, Janson included, say cost savings are still important, but finances - the reason most districts initially cited when adopting the four-day week, according to interviews - seem to have dropped to the bottom of the list of pluses.

A Globe review of school finance data submitted to the state by nine districts that have been using a four-day schedule for at least three years shows that the shorter week doesn’t always deliver savings.

The data showed that seven districts spent at least as much money overall in the year after adopting a four-day schedule. Four districts, including Everton, increased their spending per student by more than 5 percent in the first year after shifting to the four-day schedule. Food, transportation and energy costs - some of the most-cited areas for savings - did not reliably decrease. Four of the nine districts saw transportation spending increase or stay the same in the first year. Four of nine saw their energy costs rise. The data also showed food offered the most substantial area savings, with seven of nine districts saving an average of 10 percent, likely because some districts reduced salaries and benefits for food service staff.

Ron Lankford, a former commissioner of finance for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, pointed out that paying teachers and certified staff accounts for much of the cost of running a school district, and that doesn’t change with the four-day schedule.

“You can show some savings, but put those savings into the scope into the operation of the school district, and it’s very minimal,” said Lankford, who is now with the Joplin School District.

“It’s really hard to show material savings for the district on a four-day school week,” he said after reviewing the state data used in the Globe’s analysis.

Teasing out savings is complicated. Everton, for instance, spent more overall, though it realized small savings on substitute teacher costs. What’s more, additional spending can be caused by changes in enrollment or shifting prices for food and fuel. Everton, as it has seen graduation rates and test scores rise, also has seen enrollment rebound, from 150 students in 2012 to 187 this year, pushing up some of its costs.

But the overall experience of the nine districts indicates that shifting to a four-day week is not a sure route out of a financial predicament.

The four-day week first gained traction in the 1970s as a cost-saving measure in Western states where some rural districts have more square miles than pupils. Pinched at the fuel pump, school administrators extended their school days but cut the school week as a means of taking fewer trips.

Many of the districts that adopted the four-day week in Missouri did so for a similar reason: saving money. In fact, Missouri legislators made the the four-day alternative available to school districts in 2008, during the economic recession.

“It was budget driven; we were flat broke,” said Gene Neff, an administrator at the Orearville School District in northern Missouri, which adopted a four-day week in 2013.

The district saw savings in every major category of spending impacted by the four-day week. In the year after adopting the policy, the district chopped 7 percent from its spending on food service compared to the year before. Its energy costs - primarily heating and cooling school buildings - fell by 41 percent in one year. Transportation costs fell 8 percent. But the total savings - just under $13,000 annually - are small, accounting for roughly 2 percent of the rural district’s annual expenditures.

“We were hit by the state budget crunch,” explained Steve Harris, superintendent of Harrisburg, near Columbia, referring to tightening state spending on K-12 education.

“It was strictly a budget thing,” said Chris Fine, superintendent of Lathrop, near St. Joseph, which became the first Missouri district to adopt the practice of in 2010.

But the districts are finding that the savings, whether they materialized as hoped, are now less of an issue than some of the other trade-offs.

Parents in Maries County say it gives them more family time and more time to go to appointments, according to Patrick Call, the superintendent. Teachers and students also respond favorably to surveys, he said, and the district couldn’t return to a five-day schedule without blowback.

On the financial side, the picture is less clear. Maries County has found savings overall, much of it in the cost of food and the energy it needs for its buildings, but it wasn’t dramatic - less than 1 percent of the district’s total expenditures.

Neff says that Orearville students, fresh from a three-day weekend, seem better able to focus. Parents are pleased. Test scores are holding their own.

“I don’t think there’s a chance” the district will go back to five days, he said, adding: “We’re real pleased, and I get a call every year from other schools asking questions.”

The Globe’s analysis of district spending parallels a study conducted by education officials in Oklahoma.

After the number of four-day districts doubled in one year to 97 - prompting the state superintendent “contagion” comment - officials set out to analyze the before-and-after spending by the 16 districts that started the new schedule in 2012.

The report, released in March, showed mixed results. Just over half the districts spent more money on utilities, food, transportation and support staff after shaving a day from the school week, but the remaining districts succeeded in cutting spending. The report’s authors cautioned, however, that the changes in spending could have been caused by shifts in enrollment.

They also highlighted the difficulty of linking spending to a single change; food and transportation costs are affected by fluctuating commodity prices.

Still, Hofmeister said the study should serve as a warning to districts considering a shorter schedule. Although the evidence against the policy wasn’t strong, it also wasn’t favorable.

“We can find no conclusive evidence to support the theory that four-day school weeks save districts money,” she wrote in a memo presenting the report’s findings to Gov. Mary Fallin, a Republican.

Though Missouri school administrators don’t appear as eager to drop a day from the calendar as their counterparts in cash-strapped Oklahoma, there is no sign yet of a slowdown.

Unlike Oklahoma, where the proliferation of four-day weeks has led statewide education officials to push back against the policy, Missouri’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education has shown little interest in interfering with what is a local decision.

“We do not offer guidance on the four-day school week,” said Sarah Potter, a spokeswoman for DESE, in an email.

The Missouri Association of School Administrators also takes no position on the four-day week. Doug Hayter, director of MASA, says the issue comes down to “local control and what is best for your community.”

In districts that have already adopted a four-day schedule, Mondays seem to be gone for good. None of the nine districts in Missouri that have been on a four-day schedule for at least three years plan to return to a five-day schedule, according to a Globe survey of the superintendents. However, two years after making a switch to a four-day week, the Lexington School District returned to a five-day week, becoming the only district to do so since the policy’s implementation.

Superintendent Dan Hoehn previously told the Globe there were no improvements in student achievement or teacher retention and that budgetary gains - the primary reason for the shift - were smaller than expected. He said the district was still using many of its building on Monday, reducing cost savings, and they also felt that lengthening the school day by going to a four-day week created a long day for students.

Superintendents interviewed for the article said that even if savings from a four-day shift aren’t as big as expected, they have discovered intangible benefits that they believe serve as a rationale for staying on that path. Some of those benefits are improved teacher retention and more family time.

And as more districts adopt the practice, the conversation has begun to shift away from finances entirely.

The Miller School District in Southwest Missouri recently shifted to a four-day week in hopes of attracting teachers.

“Our main purpose was to attract and keep highly qualified staff,” said Dustin Storm, Miller superintendent.

The district has struggled to attract teachers partly because of the long commute from surrounding cities.

Back in Everton, Janson, the superintendent, said the four-day week helped turn around a struggling district, and even if the savings aren’t as dramatic as hoped, the shorter school week may still be here to stay.

“I don’t think we’re ever going back to a five-day week,” he added.

Copyright © 2023 The Washington Times, LLC.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide