By: Melissa Maynard
State Capital Bureau
JEFFERSON CITY - Gov. Bob Holden has cited a shortened school week as a threat schools might face if his proposed $259 million budget cuts become a reality.
"I don't want to make the choice that Arkansas and Colorado and others have made," Holden told Missouri school board members earlier this week. "And that is to cut schools from five days to four days a week in some of their districts."
But an October report from the National School Boards Association found that shortening the school week did not have an adverse affect in schools examined in the report's review.
This year, more than 100 school districts in seven states have shortened the school week to four days in an attempt to cut costs.
The students in these districts generally spend a comparable amount of time in class, as days are lengthened and sometimes added to the school year to compensate for the lost day.
The report cites Merryville High -- a K-12 school in rural Louisiana -- as a particularly successful case, in terms of both financial and academic results. Since switching to a four-day schedule, Merryville High has reported better attendance, fewer disciplinary problems, better grades, and test scores at least as high or higher than they were under a conventional schedule.
Some districts have tried to boost student performance by requiring students who are falling behind to come to school for awhile on Friday.
In Missouri, Associate Commissioner of Education Gerri Ogle said she's not convinced that a four-day week would be an effective way to save money.
Because students are in class for a comparable amount of time, Ogle said she didn't think salary requirements would change significantly.
Ogle said if the governor does withhold more funds, school districts would have to make cuts according to their individual needs.
"There isn't one answer that fits all districts," she said.
Ogle said that school districts would be likely to use funding from their reserves during the current school year due to a limited amount of flexibility in their budgets.
Legislative action would be required to make shortened weeks an option for Missouri school districts.
But Sen. Bill Foster, R-Poplar Bluff, said there's a "one in a million" chance the legislature would pass such a bill.
Foster, chairman of the Senate Education Committee and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said there were a number of programs -- including summer school, early education and college scholarship programs -- that the state would cut before seriously considering shortening the school week.
"Nobody that I know of has any intention of even discussing that possibility," Foster said.
Merryville has saved the most money in transportation, utilities and labor costs.
Four-day school weeks have been most popular with small, rural districts such has Merryville and have achieved the best results, according to the National School Board Association's report. The report attributes this popularity to bigger savings in transportation costs because students are more likely to come from greater distances. Also, students from rural districts often use the extra day to help out on family farms.
Carol Schmook, Assistant Executive Director of the Missouri National Education Association, said that it is too early to judge the academic effectiveness of a four-day schedule.
"It takes a while for anything to be measurable in terms of what students are learning," she said.
Although Schmook said her association had not yet agreed to an official position on the issue, her impression was unfavorable.
"It just seems to be counterproductive -- as we are raising standards and putting more pressure on schools to deliver more -- to then cut back the time in which they have to learn it," said Schmook. "It just leaves a big question mark."
Schmook also said that a four-day week would be hard for younger children, whose short attention spans might make the extended school days less productive.
Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, who serves on the House Education Appropriations Committee, said anything was possible at this point.
"We're in uncharted territory," said Graham. "But there is a way not to have to enter those waters and that is to use the tobacco bond issuance."