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Warroad schools start four-day week

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WARROAD -- In 15 days, Warroad will start the grand experiment of a four-day school week.

It's a cost-cutting move, with an estimated savings of $140,000. With a $12 million budget, that's a 1.2 percent savings.

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"The key question among the people was whether the dollars and cents saved will equal the possible hardship on the community and kids," said Rebecca Colden, publisher of the Warroad Pioneer weekly newspaper.

"In the winter, some (bused) kids will go to school in the dark and get home in the dark."

The change will add 65 minutes to each school day, which will start at 8 a.m. and end at 3:45 p.m. Bused students can add as much as another 90 minutes to their time away from home.

School Superintendent Craig Oftedahl said longer days are better than the alternative: "Would people rather have 35 kids in an elementary classroom? Would they rather not have business classes or electives? I think it's worth a try because we're in the business of trying to help kids."

The school board approved a two-year trial. The move came highly recommended by the superintendent of MACCRAY, which a year ago became the first public school in Minnesota to go to four days.

The $140,000 is just one piece of the cutbacks, needed because of less state aid and delayed school aid. The district also cut nine paraprofessionals, five teachers, two custodians and an administrator among the $850,000 it trimmed.

"The four-day week isn't the complete savior of the. It's just that this one gets the most ink because it's a bigger change in philosophy," Oftedahl said.

Day care needed

It's also the cut that parents probably will see the effects of directly. For grade school children, a parental concern is that the longer school days will be too strenuous, and their learning will subsequently suffer. Another is the time away from home, especially for bus riders. A third common objection is the need to find day care Fridays, when there are no classes.

The district has addressed that issue by offering day care at the school Fridays at a cost of $20 per child. It also will offer other programming at the school on Fridays, although most of it will be at a cost since community education needs to pay for itself.

"We put our school schedule up against Marvin Windows' work schedule and the average person in shift work will be affected only 4.5 days," Oftedahl said. "That means they will have 4.5 days when they need to figure out what to do with their children. And we have opportunities for those kids on those days. We feel good about that."

Older students involved in extra-curriculars also will be home much later from practice because the school day ends 45 minutes later than a year ago.

Salaries, fuel are saved

The estimated savings from the four-day week are $60,000 in bus driver salaries, $45,000 in paraprofessional salaries, $25,000 in bus fuel and $10,000 in utilities.

An anticipated savings in substitute teacher pay is not budgeted, Oftedahl said, because it isn't a "hard number." Last year, the district spent about $100,000 on substitutes, at $100 a day. More than 30 percent of those substitutes were needed on Fridays, mostly because teachers were out of school for extra-curricular activities.

"That gives us a cushion, so to speak," he said.

Blackduck and Ogilvie schools also are making the switch, bringing the total in the state to four. More schools are expected to follow because of budgets stressed by falling enrollment, state mandates and flat state aid for K-12 education.

Oftedahl has spent much of the summer meeting state requirements for the change. He's also planned the logistics, which may change because the district will soon start contract negotiations with all of its employees. They will be working under last year's contracts until an agreement is reached.

"It's going to be a challenge to work out the kinks," he said. "The four-day week will change some of the dynamics of the negotiations."

'Too much change'

Scott Halvarson, an unsuccessful candidate in the last school board election, was one of the plan's bigger critics. He said the issue contributed to his decision to move his family to Roseau.

"This helped make our decision to move a lot easier," he said.

"It seemed to me that the Roseau school spends its money wiser, listens to parents better and has its kids do better in school. This four-day thing was the topper for me."

He said his kindergartner would have been getting on the bus at 6:50 a.m. and getting off at 4:35 p.m.

Halvarson said the timing was wrong in the manufacturing town that has been affected by the depressed economy.

"This is too much change for a small community already struggling because of a reduction in hours at Marvin's and layoffs at Polaris," he said.

Wait and see

Halvarson thought other measures should have been taken to make budget. That was a theme at the public forums, where citizens had their own ideas of how to save money. Extra-curricular activities, as usual, were a target.

Ron Storey was there to defend extra-curriculars, saying dramatic cuts would send students to other districts.

"I have my concerns about this, too," he said. "The proof of its worth will be in the test scores. It's the way to measure whether this is a good educational experience or a bad educational experience.

"But I feel we need to give it a shot."

Colden, the newspaper publisher, said the majority of district members have similar feelings. Now that the decision is made, they've settled in to trying to make it work.

"Everything was stirred up for a while, but now it's settled down," she said. "They're resigned to the fact. It's like 'here we go, off on a new adventure.'"

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