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What Math Says About Four-Day Week Savings

It would seem to be a simple solution to budgetary pressures: Reduce costs sharply by moving from a five-day school week to four days. That was certainly the motivation for one Arizona school district.

When Arizona’s state legislature made significant budget cuts in 2009, the rural Bisbee Unified School District moved to a four-day week “in order to protect what we had,” says Jim Phillips, now superintendent of the 790-student district but principal of the high school at the time. The district forecast savings of 17.7 percent for utility costs, 17.4 percent for transportation expenses and 16.2 percent for custodial costs by moving to a four-day operation. Overall savings were projected at $154,000, representing 2.5 percent of Bisbee’s operating budget.

While 2.5 percent in savings doesn’t sound significant, it was enough to convince Bisbee’s school board to make the change beginning in August 2009 and stay with it.

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 Jim Phillips

Misplaced Hopes

School districts contemplating a major switch in operating hours may harbor the notion that cutting the school week by one day will generate savings in the order of 20 percent. But the actual math doesn’t quite work that way.

The general assumption administrators make is that on the fifth day the school will be completely closed,” says Michael Griffith, a senior policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States in Denver and author of a 2011 study, “What Savings Are Produced by Moving to a Four-Day School Week?” (www.ecs.org/clearing​house/93/69/9369.pdf).

He adds: “The building still had to be open; they still have some transportation costs for special ed or extracurricular.”

All too often, school governing bodies neglect to consider the fixed costs that won’t change significantly, even if school is officially shut down one day a week. Some costs, such as contractual salaries for teachers, won’t change at all. Though classrooms are not in operation, administrative support staffers remain on duty because school district offices need to be open.

Griffith’s research, which was based on six school districts moving to four-day weeks, found the actual savings most districts could expect would be about 5.43 percent. In fact, six districts that had made the move or were in the process of doing so, real savings in operating costs ranged from 0.4 percent in North Branch, Minn., to 2.5 percent in Bisbee. (See related story, page 28.)

Griffith urges administrators to consider whether they actually can trim salary expenses. Given contractual obligations, that’s often a nonstarter. The main savings are likely to come in substitute teacher costs. The reality is that if the hours remain the same — which is usually the case for teachers, guidance counselors and speech pathologists — there is no real cost savings.

Most school districts Griffith studied used the fifth day for resource activities, extracurricular programs and teacher training, which, in turn, meant that anticipated savings for maintenance, transportation and heating/cooling of the building didn’t materialize.

In Bisbee, district leaders used Friday mornings to provide additional resource help for students. Student transportation costs were covered by Title I funds.

Still, districts need to be mindful of hidden costs. “People who are secretaries, bus drivers, cafeteria workers get paid the least and are hardest hit when you move to four days,” Phillips says. “They help in other departments to get more hours.”

A Popular Plan

Even when savings are modest, though, the four-day school week — usually dropping Fridays, with a few communities opting for Monday closings — remains an attractive option in rural areas.

The main financial benefit accrues to “rural schools with a large geographic area and small student body, which have disproportionately high transportation costs,” says Griffith. The four-day week is popular in Mountain states, especially Colorado and western Kansas. The 1,200-student Wendell school district in Idaho moved to a four-day week in 2013 in pursuit of utility and transportation cost reductions.

For Phillips, the biggest benefit of having a four-day week in Bisbee, located 84 miles from Tucson, is “as a recruiting tool for teachers. Veterans appreciate the three-day weekend and flexibility of time. We look at this as a benefit.”

That aligns with Griffith’s research.

“We found that the main reason schools stuck with it was not because of savings, but because they liked the four-day work week,” he explains. “It’s extremely popular with teachers and administrators.”

Merri Rosenberg is a freelance education writer in Ardsley, N.Y. E-mail: merri.rosenberg@gmail.com

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