Costs of 4-day week may be less

Change is usually difficult and often unwelcome, particularly when prompted by financial belt-tightening due to lack of revenue.

Those of us who have experienced it in our homes know the feeling and we’ve been getting a communal taste of it over the past year or two as school and local government budgets have come up short of cash.

If you’ve been reading The New Era over the last couple of months, you know that the latest prosposed solution to the schools budget puzzle is to move from a five- to a four-day school week. The school board is expected to attempt to make a decision on the issue Monday, Feb. 13.

This is a tough call. There are no easy answers. But we’re somewhere in the neighborhood of a million dollars in the hole, and we need to take steps to solve this problem.

There are a lot of pluses and minuses associated with the four-day week, as we’ve been hearing from school staff and people who have experienced this in the past – particularly Supt. Don Schrader, whose last job was at a district that held school four days a week.

The pros include saving money so budgets can be balanced without laying people off. The system may be set up in a manner that actually teaches kids to be responsible – with extra assignments, extra homework, etc. that can help them develop problem-solving and time-management skills – some of the benefits of home-schooling, except just one day a week.

It also provides more time to provide professional development to teachers.

It could provide more time for extracurricular education, if teachers are willing to dedicate themselves to activities that don’t necessarily fit into traditional classroom formats, such as clubs, sports and the arts. More on that in a moment.

On the other hand, there are very clear downsides. Classified employees won’t be working as much, which means they’ll get paid less (hence, a lot of the savings that are making this a consideration in the first place).

If parents are working – and many have to if they are going to make ends meet, they will need to make other arrangements for the care and oversight of their children when school’s not in session.

While some youngsters may thrive under a four-day system – they have in other communities, apparently – the opportunity to work independently may not go well for those who aren’t self-starters, who don’t work well if they don’t have a teacher or parent effectively putting pressure on them (in person) to get things done.

Some might see a slightly longer school day in a four-day week as a problem, but we think it could be a benefit in some ways – particularly for classes such as science and the arts, in which longer periods tend to be more productive.

Another problem is that, whether we like it or not, schools provide some of our youngsters with wholesome meals – and two-thirds of local children right now qualify for free or reduced lunches. If a school day goes, so go those students.

Neither option is desirable. If we keep the five-day school week, we will pay the price in other areas: staff layoffs, cutting nonacademic programs, reduction in services, larger classrooms, reduction of athletics, cutting music, reducing electives and more furlough days. The question is whether it will cost us more, in the long run, to experiment with a four-day week, or to lose all the other stuff.

We think there’s less risk in the four-day week – as long as the district can keep classified employees busy enough that they won’t be forced to seek better jobs elsewhere. If the district can’t deliver on grant-funded training opportunities, it should stick with the five-day week because an inability to keep experienced, productive classified staff is not a situation that solves problem.

As far as cutting other programs goes, some might argue that most, or all, of what’s in the list above is nonessential.

But, while reading, writing and arithmetic are certainly the most vital skills, the chance for kids to engage in and learn life skills in auto shop, or wood shop, or computer club, or in the arts, or sports, become increasingly important when youngsters get little or no incentive at home to pursue education and, when school doesn’t come easily, why should they continue? Many go to school simply because they like the extracurricular opportunities. And they learn skills – social , practical, achievement and a lot more, as they engage in those activities.

As reported in the Jan. 29 Eugene Register-Guard, sacrificing classes for the five-day week has resulted in Eugene School District students sitting idle for parts of the school day because there literallly aren’t enough seats to go around. They’ve had to cut staff and, as a result, class time for students who actually want to be in those classes.

Frankly, the idea of having four full days of school and passing on a fifth is more attractive than having students loafing around because they have to be at school but there aren’t classes for them to attend, which is the problem described in the Register-Guard report.

Yes, having five days of school is certainly preferable and there are the downsides mentioned above – particularly the impact on classified staff and the need to make sure young people stay positively engaged.

But Sweet Home has, historically, stepped up to meet its challenges and we think that there are enough motivated, creative people in our district that if we, as a community, decide we’re going to pitch in and get creative, we can make the best of a bad situation.

The School Board should give this a shot, while doing its level best to keep our classified employees busy enough through grant programs – creative thinking may be required here – that they can make their own ends meet until our situation improves.