Preston upholds a decision driven by dollars

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Teacher Lynn Harris has mixed feelings about working a four-day week.

Fridays are seldom an off day; she usually spends the time gathering supplies for next week’s sewing and cooking classes at Preston High School. She still feels more refreshed when she returns to school Monday, and her students appear more refreshed too.

But five years after the fact, she says it’s “sad” that a financial crisis forced Preston to close schools on Fridays.

“I think we need to be making better decisions about our kids’ education,” she said.

When Preston adopted a four-day schedule in 2010-11, district leaders categorized it as a temporary move to weather the recession. The district spent the fall taking a second look at its calendar; on Nov. 18, trustees voted 4-1 to keep the four-day schedule intact.

The discussion never strayed too far from its origins, and the daunting fiscal realities that continue to confront Preston schools.

The harsh numbers

The case study of the Preston district can be distilled down to two numbers.

Marc Gee, Preston
The Preston School District is reviewing the pros and cons of a four-day schedule — including its financial impacts. But Superintendent Marc Gee said the schedule may not define how students fare in school. “The most important thing is how those kids are taught within the classroom.” (Photo by Kevin Richert, Idaho Education News.)

Per-pupil spending comes in at $5,766 — lowest among Idaho’s 115 school districts, and well below the state average of $7,560.

Large class sizes follow. In 2014-15, Preston’s student-teacher ratio of 22-to-1 ranks highest in the state.

Dollars are exceedingly tight — even with the four-day calendar in place. District officials say the four-day schedule provides a financial cushion of anywhere from $334,000 to $394,000. This does not reflect cost-cutting as much as it does a windfall.

Preston collects a state grant based on the money it saves on busing; legislators established the grant program to encourage savings, and Preston cut busing costs when it shifted to a four-day calendar. Absenteeism is down with the move to a four-day calendar, and that provides Preston an indirect funding boost, since the state distributes K-12 dollars based on average daily attendance.

“It is a big chunk,” said trustee Brooke Palmer, who reluctantly voted to keep the four-day calendar intact.

The question of returning to a five-day schedule always carried with it a tricky follow-up question: How would Preston plug the hole in its budget?

Living without a levy

With an enrollment of 2,522, Preston is by far the largest four-day district in Idaho. Other districts of this size — and actually, more than four-fifths of Idaho school districts — have convinced voters to pass supplemental property tax levies as budgetary backfill.

Preston doesn’t collect a supplemental levy, and hasn’t for at least two decades.

Locals point to this history as a sign of the community’s thrift. They speak fondly of the time, a few years back, when trustees decided not to collect proceeds from a voter-approved levy, because state funding came in above projections.

School board chairman Jody Shumway isn’t too enthusiastic about pursuing a supplemental levy — especially if the money were used only to reopen school on Fridays. Shumway supports the four-day schedule, since district test scores appear to be improving slightly. Before the Nov. 18 vote, he suggested Preston might be better off using a levy to hire teachers and address Preston’s student-teacher ratio. “That’s something that concerns me,” he said.

Either way, Shumway is uneasy about relying on supplemental levies, which must be renewed every year or two and are subject to economic ups and downs.

Mary Ann Cox — a mother with three children in Preston schools, aged 13, 9 and 7 — understands the dilemma facing trustees. But she had hoped Preston would go back to a conventional school calendar. The long school days leave her kids constantly tired, to the point that she feels bad when she pushes them to do their homework. And she said she’d be more than willing to support a supplemental levy, if necessary.

“I don’t think there’s any place I’d rather put my money than in the education system.”

Numbers and anecdotes

It’s not unprecedented for a school district to shift back from a four-day schedule to a five-day schedule. It’s just exceedingly rare.

Eastern Idaho’s Shelley School District ditched the four-day calendar after one turbulent year. As chronicled by Idaho State University professors Richard Sagness and Stephanie Saltzman, this proved to be a clumsy process. In August 1992, trustees abruptly changed to the four-day schedule for the 1992-93 school year. Test results were mixed, teachers and kids liked the change, parents were ambivalent. Trustees held two advisory votes — one supporting the four-day calendar, one opposing it — and then reversed course.

Preston tried to take a systematic approach. First, administrators crunched the financial numbers. Then they examined test scores, which were inconclusive. Then they surveyed the community; patrons and staff both voiced support for the four-day schedule.

Even with the surveys, trustees were left to process conflicting accounts from patrons, who support or oppose the four-day calendar with equal passion. It was a civil but emotional debate, one driven by anecdotes.

By default, the financial numbers were the only hard numbers out there. For Superintendent Marc Gee, the lack of solid academic data is frustrating.

“But I also recognize that it’s not an easy question,” he said.

“Rescheduled Education” is the product of a partnership between Idaho Education News and Idaho Public Television. Reporting on the series are Kevin Richert and Clark Corbin of Idaho Education News and Seth Ogilvie and Melissa Davlin of Idaho Public Television. Video producers are Andrew Reed of Idaho Education News and Troy Shreve of Idaho Public Television. Idaho Education News data analyst Randy Schrader compiled data for the series.

‘Rescheduled Education’ at a glance

Day One, Monday, Nov. 16

An unproven experiment, involving 26,881 Idaho students

Data dive: Surprising statistics on four-day schools

Day Two, Tuesday, Nov. 17

Four-day school test scores are inconclusive — but troubling

Sage and COSSA Academy: Two four-day outliers

Day Three, Wednesday, Nov. 18

A schedule change saves money. Just not much.

Preston upholds a decision driven by dollars

Day Four, Thursday, Nov. 19

Teachers and students adjust to longer school days

‘No time to waste:’ Notus runs at a fast pace

Day Five, Tuesday, Nov. 20

Across rural Idaho, four-day weeks become routine

Challis embraces change — but with reservations

Uncomfortable questions, unclear answers on social impacts (Idaho Reports blog)