March 4, 2010 at 8:29 a.m.

School board embraces 4-day week in North Branch; official vote later

School board embraces 4-day week in North Branch; official vote later
School board embraces 4-day week in North Branch; official vote later

North Branch administrators have recommended to the school board to pursue the four-day school week. The conceptual 2010-2011 calendar would extend to June 9 (June 10 for teachers' last day) to comply with rules about total annual instructional hours required to be offered. About one hour will be added onto each of the four days.

North Branch Superintendent Dr. Deb Henton told the School Board (John White absent) that she has heard concerns expressed in public meetings and has revised the proposed start time. Originally proposed for four-day, was 7:30 a.m. and the superintendent recommended pushing this back 15 minutes. Kids will still all be out-of-school by 3:30 p.m. but the earliest start time would be 7:45 instead of 7:30 a.m.

Henton also told the Board last week she's gotten considerable positive feedback from the public. "I feel I must talk about the positive" because public meetings usually are emotionally charged, with emphasis on opposition and those in favor of four day weeks won't speak.

School Board Director Kirby Ekstrom also took the glass half-full approach to four day weeks as a budgeting tool.

Ekstrom said eliminating one day in school opens the door to programming and activities the district hasn't had time to offer before. Ekstrom said he supports a four-day calendar if it results in reducing an expected increase in the number of kids next year in each classroom.

The school board was told the district will still eliminate three fulltime equivalent (FTE) instructor positions next year, even while going to four days.

"For the first time in many many years North Branch will be cutting tenured teachers," said Finance Director Randi Johnson. While no buildings will be exempt from budgeting scrutiny, she said she expects staff cuts to be from middle and high school rosters.

Board member Vicki McDougall said she hesitatingly supports developing a four-day calendar, for next year, only if the system is to be reviewed and studied on a yearly basis.

Dr. Henton agreed this isn't a "three to five year" plan and that academic data will be watched closely.

Activities Director Mike Cunningham also told the Board coaches and fine arts advisors support four-day weeks "out of necessity."

He added he spoke with staff in two other districts that went to four-day weeks and was informed, "They felt they'd lost no competitive edge," when it came to their programs.

Principals told the North Branch School Board members at last week's work session if accepting four-day weeks results in not jacking up the number of students per classroom, teachers can support this. "Class size is more of a concern instructionally than four-day weeks," Middle School Principal Todd Tetzlaff noted.

Another budget measure being pursued is returning to the half-day kindergarten.

Jason Hartmann, Sunrise River Elementary School Principal, said staff "likes half day K." Routines are more quickly established and the shorter day is favored for the youngest students.

Lora O'Hern, high school assistant principal, said anything that avoids direct staff reductions is preferred by those in her building.

Board Chair Kim Salo observed it looked like the consensus of the Board was to move ahead.

The meeting Feb. 25 was a work session, so votes are not taken. With this direction clarified, administration now creates a budget for 2010-2011 which the School Board will see at its special meeting March 4.

Chair Salo added, "I trust teachers are right when they say they can make this work...I trust things will settle down." She added the staff seems optimistic that the fifth day, being unstructured, leaves opportunity to offer extras like Targeted Services during the school year instead of in summer or "after school."

The plan now being finalized preliminarily would shut down the Brooker Building and the middle school on Mondays. The majority of Sunrise River School could also be shutdown.

No classes would be held, but the high school would continue to be used (sports, activities, etc.) on the fifth day.

The district wants to divest itself of MainStreet School and move Community Ed and district offices into Primary School. Primary students (now grades K-1) would be enrolled into Sunrise River School, a few blocks away.

There'd be no buses running on Mondays; no heat, lights, equipment at closed buildings; no custodial time, one less day of meal prep, etc.

Johnson said her savings estimate is "conservative" and she fully anticipates additional cost reductions due to unknowns like less absenteeism in four-day weeks. (Fewer substitute teachers, etc.)

About $150,000 can be carved out of next year's expenses just based on obvious savings in a four-day week, she added.

Dr. Henton said, "I wish from the bottom of my heart I could have led you to passing a levy (last fall)." The superintendent reminded the Board there's districts elsewhere with local levies in place collecting more than $1,000 per student, in addition to what their state aid is. North Branch needs to continue to work for a local authorized levy, she added, but the budget issues can't wait.

Johnson added that she's heard the estimated savings out of four-day weeks isn't a "significant" amount of the district's budget. The way she looks at it is; when you are carving out $100 items to try to balance the district's revenues and expenditures in that context, $150,000 is significant.


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