West Jefferson torn over four-day school week

TERRETON — Patrons are polarized over a proposed four-day school week in the West Jefferson School District.

A months-long debate over the issue came to a head during a school board meeting Thursday night, as locals lined up to either voice concerns or share their support for the proposed change. About 75 people attended the meeting.

(Idaho Education News’ award-winning reporter Kevin Richert investigated four-day school weeks in Idaho and its effects on children and rural communities. Click here to read the 11-story series.)

Supporters in West Jefferson say they want the flexibility that comes with a three-day weekend. Those opposed cite a lack of research surrounding the value of a shortened week, as well as financial burdens placed on classified staff.

“You have to understand that this change would come on the backs of your classified people,” said Snake River School District superintendent David Kerns. “Your bus drivers, your lunch ladies — they are the ones who will feel the effects the most.”

West Jefferson trustees asked Kerns to share his experience at the helm of a nearby district with a four-day model.

Kerns admits he’s partial to four-day weeks, but said they aren’t a fix-all. He cited a variety of pitfalls for those contemplating the shift:

  • Long days are tough on elementary students.
  • Additional child care can burden parents.
  • Instructional time is depleted by up to 23 days annually.

Kerns also touted perceived improvements stemming from a four-day week:

  • Lower dropout rates.
  • Fewer disciplinary referrals.
  • Improved attendance.

Four-day weeks also help districts save money, Kerns said, though not as much as some think. Snake River’s annual savings stack up to about 2 percent annually — just a sliver of an overall budget.

Following Kerns’ remarks, trustees heard a mixed bag of input from patrons and teachers.

“This would directly affect our pay,” said bus driver Mickey Williams. “If we lost enough hours as a result, it could also affect our benefits.”

The district’s three bus drivers mobilized against the proposal, and estimated 12-hour days for some students living in remote parts of the sprawling rural district. Some kids live up to 40 miles away from the school.

Because they are contracted under salaries, a shift to four-day weeks doesn’t typically affect teacher pay — though Kerns said it would affect accrued sick leave hours by up to 20 percent. He pointed out that sick hours determine health benefits for state retirees.

Parent Kimery Capell said shifting to a four-day model would actually make it easier for parents with day jobs. The district already releases students an hour early on Mondays, she said, and sporadic days off already create a demand for day care throughout the year.

“If we did move to a four-day week, at least there would be consistency — people would know to have day care lined up on Friday,” she said.

Superintendent Dwight Richins said: “I’m really mixed. I have a hard time taking a stand on one side or the other, but I know the board usually goes with what the majority of parents want.”

Board members said they’ll weigh the input and reach a decision during their Dec. 8 meeting. A four-day shift wouldn’t go into effect until the 2017-18 school year.

West Jefferson is in East Idaho, about 40 miles northwest of Idaho Falls. It serves about 200 students annually.