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Economy brings changes to schools

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- Fort Valley's Peach County Schools were faced with a quandary last July.

Gov. Sonny Perdue had just announced that the state would cut 3 percent, or $191 million, from Quality Basic Education funding.

The state would also be cutting 3 percent, or $13.4 million from equalization funds, implement cuts of an unspecified amount to categorical grants and require all state-funded employees to lose the equivalent of three days of salary by Dec. 31.

Knowing that their teachers would be reporting in just seven days and realizing that they had lost $795,000 in state funding, Peach County Schools had little time to adjust to the financial challenge. School officials decided to make a bold change and became the first public school system out of 181 in the state to adopt a four-day school week schedule for the 2009-10 school year.

"Our approach when we first brainstormed it was what would least affect our students," said Jim O'Shields, assistant superintendent for administrative services for Peach County Schools. "We think we saved 39 slots. We were looking at eliminating teacher positions, PE, music and choral, and we didn't want to do all that. We think we're on to a pretty good thing. It seems to be working for us right now."

The Peach School System administrator said the seven-school system with approximately 4,000 students is estimating a savings of almost $1 million for the first year of the four-day week.

"We are estimating a total savings of $900,000," said O'Shields, who has worked for Peach schools for 10 years. "We saved almost $20,000 in utilities from August-October; $130,960.97 in substitute costs August-December; $32,215 in transportation; and the three furlough days for all employees amounted to $406,500. Total savings may prove less, but we are doing what we believe is best for our students."

Despite the shortened school week, O'Shields said Peach County students are actually exceeding state rules for instruction per day. In kindergarten-third grade, the state requires students to have 270 minutes of instruction per day, but by switching to a Tuesday-Friday weekly schedule, students are receiving 370 minutes of instruction a day, O'Shields said. Those same students, during the course of their 147-day school year, will have 54,390 minutes of instruction time, compared to 48,600 for students on a 180-day schedule.

Peach County kindergarten-fifth grade students attend school from 7:45 a.m. to 3 p.m. Middle and high school students attend from 8:30 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. Although all the system's buildings are closed on Mondays, O'Shields said the varsity football team did practice Monday mornings. The team went undefeated and won the state title.

In addition to the strong play on the football field, O'Shields said discipline problems are down, student attendance is up, the use of substitutes is significantly smaller and morale has improved throughout the system.

As far as parents having trouble finding baby sitters for students on Mondays, O'Shields said the situation has taken care of itself.

"We had a lot of churches and Boys & Girls Clubs step up for (what they called) Monday school," he said, noting that those programs soon went unused. "Obviously, parents got resourceful and found other things. The question I pose to you is what did you do (for baby-sitting) your kid last summer?

"I think the total of negative calls was 20," added O'Shields, who said the school system will have four-day school weeks for at least next year as well. "We were just trying to keep people working. If you eliminate teachers, your class sizes go up. We tried to look at the least impact on students and tried not to do anything crazy that would impact students."

Due to Peach's apparent success, O'Shields said he has fielded calls from about 12-13 schools around the state since Jan. 1. The calls will likely increase, as Perdue recently requested three additional unpaid, non-instructional furlough days to be taken by June 30 as part of his yet-to-be-approved Amended Fiscal Year 2010 and FY 2011 budget proposals.

The Wilcox County Board of Education in Abbeville voted earlier this month to follow in Peach County's footsteps by approving a four-day school week plan for the next school year. The plan still requires approval from the State Board of Education. The Macon Telegraph reported that Wilcox school officials believe the move will save them about $100,000.

A call to Wilcox Superintendent Steve Smith seeking comment was not returned.

The Taylor County School System in Butler is also looking at an alternative calendar for the next school year. Located 40 miles north of Americus, Taylor has four public schools. It has about 1,500 children, and about 70 percent of those receive free or reduced lunch.

Taylor County Superintendent Wayne Smith said recent school board meetings have attracted large crowds since the school system is nearing its decision on how it will handle continued economic uncertainty.

"We're contemplating an alternative calendar," Smith said. "The projected savings (of switching to a four-day schedule) are not what we expected, but we don't have any final numbers yet. Ideas are being kicked around the state. People are desperate to save money without raising taxes, so they're looking at alternative calendars as a way to save money."

In the metro Albany area, Dougherty County School System officials have also looked into an alternative school week.

"The administration and principals of the Dougherty County School System have considered the modified week and class schedules now being allowed by recent changes to state law," Public Information Director R.D. Harter said. "The leadership believes that maintaining the traditional five-day class schedule will best serve students enrolled in our system and their parents. The goal is to maximize class time during which learning takes place."

Dougherty County Board of Education Chairman David Maschke was even more clear about the 16,000-student, 26-school system adopting a four-day school week.

"I don't think there's any chance Dougherty County will go to a four-day school week," Maschke said Thursday at an Albany Rotary Club luncheon. "I think we've got to think about the parents and them having to find baby-sitting for that one day of the week. You can't just save money to save money, sometimes you have to spend money to have more effective teaching and learning. ... I just don't think it'll work here."

After the meeting, Maschke said that, "The four-day school week is not something the administration is recommending or that the board is considering." Another possible stumbling block to the four-day school week idea is the fact that 76.9 percent of Dougherty County students participate in the free or reduced lunch program.

Lee County Superintendent Lawrence Walters said his school system has talked "a little bit" about a four-day schedule.

"First of all, we won't know how much money we'll be receiving (from the state)," he said. "Obviously, there's some savings for the four-day school week, but you have to think about the whole community. I'll never say never, that it won't be discussed, but at this time it hasn't been (seriously) discussed. It's an interesting concept."

Terrell County Superintendent Robert Aaron said his school system has also not had serious discussion about a four-day week.

"The (school) board talked about it, but we've decided not to take any action on it right now," Aaron said. "However, I am running the numbers to see what the savings would be to bring that back to them for a discussion probably at the next board meeting. We have not seriously made a decision on it. I doubt seriously that we would go on that unless we have some significant savings."

Worth County School System Public Information Director Heather Faircloth said school administrators had a meeting Friday and talked about a lot of ideas. Faircloth said the four-day option probably wouldn't work in Worth County.

"We don't have a lot of day cares, and it would be difficult for parents to find day care (help), so it's not really an option we're considering," she said.

Pelham City School District Superintendent Paul Fanning also said his school system has looked into alternative models.

"We've had some review and discussion about some four-day models," he said. "However, we are a long way from having a firm information base from which to formally address that decision."

A call to Mitchell County Superintendent Beauford Hicks on the issue was not returned. However, Mitchell County School Board Chairman Joseph White said the school system plans to keep a standard five-day school week.

"In Mitchell County, we are working diligently to ensure that we continue to have a 180-day calendar for students, because it's my belief that we are already short on seat-time at 180 days," White said. "It is our responsibility as adults to ensure that our kids have a quality education so that they can compete in the global economy. I feel as though this can be achieved by rolling up your sleeves, thinking outside the box and learning to do more with less. I do not see this as a trend. In my opinion, this should be the last measure a district takes."

Albany's Elizabeth Ragsdale, the Georgia School Board's District 2 state representative, also has concerns about non-traditional school ideas. District 2 covers about 32 counties, ranging from Peach County down to the Florida line and across to the Alabama line.

"Any consideration of alternative calendar schedules as cost-saving measures should begin with data analysis to determine if such alternative schedules will result in enough financial savings to warrant the resulting disruptions to schools, families and communities," she said. "Data to date indicate minimal cost savings and raise questions regarding the effectiveness of such cost-saving measures."

State Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, said he understood the outside-the-box thinking some school systems are having to do because of the continuing state budget crisis. Rynders represents District 152, which covers parts of Colquitt, Dougherty, Lee and Worth counties.

"I obviously favor local control whenever possible and greater flexibility during these tough economic times," Rynders said. "The system will decide what is best for their own unique situation. It is my hope that the local money saved will be used to avoid at least some furloughs when possible."

Across the country, more public school systems are opting for four-day weeks to counter local, state and national budget cuts. An August 2008 Time magazine story reported more than 100 school districts in 17 states held class only four days a week. In that story, it was reported that South Dakota's Custer School District adopted a four-day school week schedule in 1995. Custer Superintendent Tim Creal said nearly 90 percent of parents now support the schedule.

"I'd be tarred and feathered for even suggesting it," Creal said of going back to a five-day school week.

The Time article noted that even though most states require a minimum of 180 days of school a year, almost every industrialized country in Asia and Europe mandates three additional weeks of school or more. In fact, students in Korea and China attend more than 220 days of school annually.

Time reported that European and Asian countries routinely outperform U.S. students in reading, math and science.

Herald librarian Mary Braswell contributed to this story.