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Minnesota's Four-Day School Week Based on Money, Not Education

January 19, 2010 By John Fitzgerald, Education Policy Fellow

Minnesota school districts that have begun using a four-day school week say that students, teachers and the community generally accept the shorter week and, in some cases, prefer it to the traditional five day week. That's good news, because the districts had to go to the four-day weeks whether the students, teachers or community liked it or not.

Acceptance of the short week doesn't change the fact that it is a bandage to chronic underinvestment from the state. School districts like MACCRAY, Warroad, Ogilvie and Blackduck find themselves in such an untenable financial position that they have to resort to drastic measures just to shave a few dollars off the bottom line.

MACCRAY, which stands for Maynard, Clara City and Raymond, is a west central Minnesota district that began a four-day week last year. The Blackduck and Warroad districts in northern Minnesota, along with the Ogilvie district in central Minnesota, began a four-day week this year.

Make no mistake about it: These decisions were entirely financial in nature. While school leaders intend to put the savings back into the classroom, and they certainly don't want to see test scores, graduation rates or other measures of academic achievement fall, their main interest was not to better student achievement but to simply keep the doors open.

This is the result of failed leadership at the state level. In 2003, Minnesota began a state takeover of school finances, an attempt to bring statewide property tax relief. Since that time, the amount the state has paid schools has dropped an inflation-adjusted 13 percent, leaving schools high and dry for money to provide even a basic education.

"We've cut $1 million in the past 10 years," said Blackduck superintendent Robert Doetsch. "We've cut and cut and there's no place more to cut without affecting basic education."

Blackduck is a district of 642 students with 52 percent in poverty. The district has failed to raise the levy in referendums in the last two years. Doetsch said the district will save an estimated $70,000 by going to a four-day week.

"But it's just a Band Aid. We're doing this in light of the legislature gutting us financially. This shows how desperate we are."

MACCRAY has a similar problem, said superintendent Greg Schmidt. The district with 710 students will save about $143,000 this year because of the four-day week.

"There are very few places for us to cut at the elementary level, so if we hadn't saved this money, the cuts would have come out of the high school level," he said, adding that the loss of several teachers would have meant untenable class sizes or the loss of an entire elective program.

Warroad superintendent Craig Oftedahl was more succinct. If his district hadn't gone to the four-day week, he would have had to cut foreign language or shop entirely for his 1,100 students.

"There just aren't that many places to cut anymore," he said. "We've cut the last 10, 12 years and there's no place to go, so now we'd have to cut basic programs."

Minnesota's Constitution requires the state to provide an education to its citizens, and kudos to these school districts for finding a way to provide that education when the state has reneged on its financial responsibility.

It didn't need to be like this. Simple financial planning on the part of the governor and lawmakers would have meant that districts wouldn't have to resort to shell games and smoke just to be able to afford basic programs or keep class sizes below that of a mob.

This is a sad time for Minnesota education when innovation and experimentation is the result of state financial mismanagement, not the desire to improve the education available to our children.

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