North Idaho school embraces four-day weeks

Boundary County’s switch to a four-day school week in 2007-08 was borne of financial necessity.

In the years that have followed, teachers, staff, parents and Bonners Ferry residents have enjoyed the change to the point that the superintendent would have to think long and hard before going back … even if he could.

Dick Conley_1
Dick Conley

“The bottom line is we would be bankrupt in one year (if the district went back to five-day school),” said Superintendent Dick Conley. “On the other hand, we would probably hear from teachers, parents and students who have embraced this schedule.”

And while there is financial savings with the switch, the impact isn’t as great or definitive as one might expect, he said.

Even though Boundary County is the largest Idaho school district to adopt a four-day school week, it is hardly alone. According to the state Department of Education website, 53 Idaho schools in 14 school districts have followed suit this school year.

The trend to move to four days is picking up steam. Idaho had only 19 schools offering the four-day school week in 2007.

The four-day week trend started in the early 1970s in New Mexico in response to the energy crisis. Boundary County faced a perfect storm of shrinking enrollment and revenue falling short of expenses in a community hit by the recession when it made the switch.

“Not much has changed since then,” Conley said. “Boundary County is still losing jobs and kids and good-paying jobs just aren’t here.”

Through the good times and bad, the community has rallied to support the schools and the latest vote showed that. Last week voters passed a $4.8 million maintenance and operation levy by 140 votes, or 53 percent. Two years ago, the levy passed by 54 percent.

How does the four-day school week work?

State law mandates that school districts with five-day school weeks must have seven-hour school days for 165 days. Schools with four-day weeks must have eight-hour days for 142 school days – a 23-day reduction.

Idaho schools with the four-day week are operational Monday through Thursday while some states shutter schools on Monday.

The typical school day in Boundary County starts with buses picking students at 6:30 a.m. A Zero Hour Class – which is a senior government class – starts at 7 a.m. and classes for the entire district start at 8 a.m.

Students attend seven classes a day while teachers teach six.

The final bell rings at 4 p.m. and those students in sports or other extra-curricular activities might be at the schools until 6:30. That doesn’t include days when there are sporting events when teams may have to travel more than 100 miles to compete.

“In the elementary schools, this schedule is really tough on the little guys,” Conley said. “For the first month or so there is some extra nap time built into the school day.”

Teachers often use Fridays to catch up with grading and lesson planning.

Standardized test scores are at par or ahead of peer schools, Conley said. He also said that for the first few years of the four-day week that absenteeism for students and teachers dropped substantially.

Where are the savings?

“Well, I can tell you that it isn’t 20 percent,” he said.

The biggest financial savings comes from keeping buses and bus drivers off the roads on Fridays. Turning down the heat and lights also saves.

“We do save money on non-certified positions,” he said. “Even though most of them work 10-hour shifts we don’t need lunchroom personnel or custodians on Fridays.”

Conley, who is retiring at the end of the year, said that financial savings is a good goal but rarely happens.

“We closed Evergreen Elementary in 2009 and the district was sure we would save $200,000 to $250,000 a year,” he said. “The reality has been about a $100,000 a year savings.”

Each school or district will find some savings switching to four days but it won’t be substantial, he said.

“There are a ton of variables and for some reason, each get in the way of saving money,” he said.

 What about Fridays?

The main financial challenge is that most of the schools in the district aren’t shuttered on Fridays. At Boundary County there is a half-day class to help students catch up. Sports teams practice, play or travel on Fridays and the band and choir often rehearse on Fridays.

At Bonners Ferry Junior High, the 4-H organization hosts students to a day of crafts, games, gym and computer access. Conley said 4-H volunteers stepped up as soon as the four-day week took effect.

“They wanted to make sure we didn’t have an influx of latchkey kids,” he said. “By all measure, it has been a success.”

The district doesn’t pay the parents who run the 4-H Fridays, but does pick up the tab for utilities.

“This community positively likes the schools,” Conley said. “Families have made the most of it by turning Fridays into family days. The community has embraced it and it is part of our lives now.”

Conley’s phone has been ringing a bit more during the past few years as principals and superintendents ask how Boundary County has made the switch. Clark Fork and Troy, Mont., representatives have shown the most recent interest.

“The four-day week is a necessity in this community,” he said. “Any school can do it but they have to go into it realizing that it is a systemic change for everyone involved.”

The Idaho Department of Education has a section on its website that offers a step-by-step method to explore making the switch. The site suggests schools reach out to four-day school administrators and recommends surveying the staff and public before joining the ever-increasing number of Idaho schools that have joined the ranks of four-day schools.