By Jennifer Palmer, Oklahoma Watch
Support for a four-day week is strong in the eastern Oklahoma community of Oologah.
In a survey conducted by Oologah-Talala Public Schools, more than 80 percent of parents, students and other stakeholders ranked a condensed school week as an acceptable way for the district to reduce spending.
Superintendent Max Tanner disagrees.
“Personally, I do not feel like a four-day week would be good for most of our students,” he said, adding that it could actually be detrimental, especially for young children attending class on longer days Monday through Thursday. And so, come the fall, school will be in session from Monday through Friday.
Oologah-Talala’s decision illustrates how districts must not only make difficult choices in the face of looming budget cuts, but also weigh those choices against the desires of parents and students.
In some cities, school administrators, expecting to deal with budget cuts of at least 5 percent next school year, are soliciting community advice on which spending areas to cut and which to protect. Districts have distributed surveys on their websites or through email or student folders. Many also have gathered feedback through community meetings and informal conversations with parents.
Increasingly, the choices look something like this. Do we increase class sizes by one, or two, or even three or four, students? Can we charge a fee for buses, or reduce sports or arts offerings? Should we shutter the school on Fridays and operate on a four-day school week?
The surveys are just one piece of data schools use when weighing budget cuts. They also must consider geography, demographics, competitiveness and financial condition of the district. Officials also may rely on what they understand education research to show on certain practices, such as four-day weeks or larger class sizes. Ultimately, any plan is a balancing act.
“It’s very difficult,” said Shawn Hime, executive director of the Oklahoma State School Boards Association. “Schools are grappling with uncertainty right now, not knowing what the budget is but having to meet the legal timeline for teacher notice.”
Yes and No
A check of about a dozen school districts around the state that sought community and teacher input found that in some cases they agreed and in others, they did not.
In Tulsa Public Schools, nearly 4,000 people participated in a survey about potential budget cuts. Respondents included teachers, parents, students and other staff and community members.
The results revealed what the community would most like to avoid: larger class sizes.
Of the 13 cost-saving measures the questionnaire presented, adding four students per classroom was ranked the least acceptable move, and increasing class sizes by three students was second-to-last.
Despite that view, Superintendent Deborah Gist’s staffing plan called for an expected growth in class sizes by an average three or four students in most grades. The board later approved it.
“The unfortunate reality is that so much of our budget is tied up in ‘people costs.’ It’s impossible to make cuts of this magnitude without having an impact on students and classroom sizes,” said Chris Payne, a district spokesman.
Tulsa schools are preparing for a $13.5 million reduction in state aid in the upcoming school year. The district, the second largest in the state, is operating on a $552 million budget.
The cut ranked most acceptable by Tulsa community members was reducing central office expenditures. The school board already has approved reducing administration by 102 positions at a savings of $2.7 million. Second most palatable was modifying bell times to reduce transportation expenses, another move the board approved.
Months ago, the Sand Springs superintendent minced no words when inviting parents and others to review a list of items on the chopping block, calling it a “Menu of Misery.”
A shrinking fund balance coupled with reductions in state allocations necessitated some painful choices.
Assistant Superintendent Sherry Durkee said a survey of the community revealed support for every program, so Sand Springs is trying to evenly trim across the board rather than axe whole programs.
But some community preferences couldn’t be met. Everyone wanted to maintain elementary class sizes, with about 20 students each, Durkee said.
“The bottom line is, we run a pretty lean district anyway and we’ve always protected those elementary class sizes, and we’re not going to be able to at this point,” she said.
Students in Sand Springs can expect to have at least 25 classmates in the fall.
While smaller class sizes would seem better on their face, a debate has raged in national education circles for decades over how much of a difference smaller class sizes make. A review of 19 studies spanning two decades by the Center for Public Education found that in most cases, smaller classes in K-3 help improve student achievement, and a class no larger than 18 students per teacher produces the greatest benefits. In 2014, the Colorado-based National Education Policy Center also reviewed research and concluded, “Class size matters,” with the payoff greatest for low-income and minority students.
Some school districts are finding surprising support for one of the most controversial cost-saving measures: the four-day school week.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Joy Hofmeister has called four-day weeks a “promotional tactic to attract teachers at the expense of kids,” and Gov. Mary Fallin has said they are “not acceptable.”
In Oologah, Tanner said four-day weeks carry too many potential negatives, including the risk that low-income students would likely not eat a decent meal and that working parents would have to juggle child care on the extra day off.
The Oologah survey, distributed in April, asked community members to rank 12 cost-saving measures, including increasing class sizes and reducing spending on athletics and administration. The least palatable cut in this rural, 189-square-mile school district was reducing bus service.
Tanner agrees it’s important to protect the community’s bus service.
But shortening the school week was the most acceptable option, according to those surveyed. That’s where Tanner and the community did not see eye to eye.
“As long as we can, we need to stay on the traditional school week. In the end, I feel like I have to do what’s best for students,” Tanner said.
Yet in the Fletcher school district, about 20 miles northeast of Lawton, a poll revealed the change would be quite popular with parents, teachers and students.
Of the 229 responses received, 200 people said they would prefer a four-day school week, with longer days to compensate.
All of the teachers who voted were in favor, said Superintendent Shane Gilbreath. He said school districts in surrounding communities have shortened their weeks, and the move could help Fletcher retain teachers and students.
The budget crunch facing his district, like most others across the state, prompted their consideration of four-day weeks. Gilbreath said the proposal will be presented to the school board on Thursday.
“It really doesn’t save a ton of money, but it does save a little. If they (legislators) keep cutting us, every little bit is going to help,” he said.
Newcastle Public Schools found at least 60 percent of its community members support a move to a four-day week, which it will begin in the fall.
Canadian Public Schools has yet to poll community members, but a temporary move to four-day weeks was so well-received, the district may implement the schedule in the fall, said Superintendent Rodney Karch.
“Teachers love it. Students love it,” said Karch, whose district is south of Eufaula.
In more affluent Edmond, teacher and staff surveys are driving budget initiatives as the district braces for a $3.5 million reduction in state aid next school year, said Edmond Public Schools Superintendent Bret Towne.
But not only is the district looking at operational cuts of $2.1 million, it is considering raising revenue, including charging tuition for half the day of full-day pre-K. Parents would have the option to pay for a longer day, with the same teacher and teacher’s aide. Expected revenue is $150,000 a year.
Edmond also is looking at sending a larger portion of its before- and after-school program revenue back to the district and raising its rental rates. The moves may help prevent unpopular cuts.
“We’re trying to figure out what’s best for the schools, (and) what’s best for the staff. I mean, none of it is good,” Towne said.
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that produces in-depth and investigative content on a range of public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to oklahomawatch.org.