In a last-ditch attempt to stretch a fraying budget, School District 27J could become the first metro-area district to move to a four-day school week. The controversial proposal is fundamental in scope but deeply personal in consequence to local families.
It was standing-room only at School District 27J’s training facility in downtown Brighton on Jan. 31. Vehicles filled the parking lot and lined the street, and families filled the chairs inside. District staff and faculty members leaned against the walls, eyes scanning the crowd. The energy level was high, the audience by turns antagonistic, concerned, curious and frustrated.
The gathering was the first of three community meetings hosted by 27J to discuss the proposed change to the school week. The district will decide by March 23; if approved, the four-day schedule would take effect in fall. The change was proposed after voters rejected a $12 million mill levy override in November. The money garnered would have been used to compensate teachers, upgrade books and materials, and expand staffing.
While the district dug into savings to replace 20-year-old textbooks and outdated technology, it didn’t have enough money to boost teachers’ pay or update curriculum. Superintendent Chris Fiedler said he thought of shifting school hours while he was crunching budget numbers and wondering, “How in the world are we going to cut 20 percent of what we do?”
That’s when he saw it — five days in a school week, each day worth 20 percent.
This is not the state’s first disruption of the traditional five-day school week. Nearly 100 districts across Colorado — more than half the districts in the state — have schools where students attend fewer than 160 days a year. That number has grown from 39 districts in the 2000-01 school year. But most of them — Manzanola 3J, Creede School District and Akron R-1, for example — are in rural areas. Fiedler said the closest similar district to 27J is Pueblo County 70, which transitioned to a four-day week in 2010.
Fiedler said his first concern when considering the change was, How will kids make up the lost time from skipping a day each week? As proposed, the district would drop early releases, late starts and the occasional Wednesdays off, as well as add time to school days.
“We’ve done the math multiple times; we have the same number of contact hours in this (proposed) schedule as we have in the existing calendar,” Fiedler said.
Students would not attend school on Mondays, as most federal holidays fall on Mondays and high school sports teams traditionally compete on Fridays.
Teachers would work 7:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays (and some Monday hours each month, to be determined). Middle and high school students would attend classes 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and elementary students from 7:50 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. The district’s charter schools would choose whether to hold classes four or five days a week.
The four-day instructional week would provide additional planning time for teachers, said Fiedler and chief academic officer Will Pierce. “We’re excited about the opportunities to engineer times so the teachers can be fully developed, can be fully planned and prepared for kids,” Pierce said.
Fiedler is confident a four-day week would save the district $1 million a year, mostly in transportation, utilities, and substitute teacher costs.
Still, District 27J must find other ways to save money. Because of the district’s low tax assessment value of $1 million, Fiedler said 27J will never be able to “tax its way to equal.” Typical bonds sales and mill levy overrides won’t bring the district anywhere close to the levels of funding in Boulder, Cherry Creek or Denver, he said. The strain will grow as the district adds an estimated 1,000 children a year through 2030, expanding the student body from nearly 18,000 to a projected 30,000.
The district has repeatedly asked voters for more money over the last 17 years and received about half its requests for capital expenditures, but no other funds. Fiedler said he sympathizes with voters and has no intention of chasing another mill levy override. Now that he’s emerged from the “tunnel vision” preceding last year’s ballot loss, Fiedler is open to other opportunities to save money.
“The more we explore how we can use time in different ways, the more excited we get,” he said.
Some district families expressed wariness of the four-day proposal at last week’s meeting. Their most prominent concern is finding and paying for childcare on Mondays. District leaders say they could expand existing before- and after-school programs or collaborate with the local Boys and Girls Club to provide care.
Pierce recognizes this problem will fall disproportionately on low-income families. “I’m curious about what that off day causes,” he said. “What if … you have two people who have to work to pay the bills? What do those kids do on Mondays?”
Pierce plans to track other potential issues related to a change: Will fewer students sign up for drama or band or sports teams that require after-school commitment because they’re worn out from the lengthened school day? Will more students get in trouble on Mondays away from campus?
As the community meeting ended, many parents in the audience remained skeptical.
“When you lose a day you’re not making that up elsewhere,” said Tamsin Totays, a working mother of three Bromley East Charter School students. Totays is concerned about finding child care, but said more than anything else she wonders if the meeting was a formality held to discuss a decision that would be made regardless of parents’ input.
Parent Justin Wallace said he doesn’t believe a shorter week would benefit the whole community, nor that the money saved would directly impact kids. However, he acknowledged improvements are needed and that he’s willing to help fund them.
“I wouldn’t mind paying a bit more taxes to get better teachers,” Wallace said.
Megan Overboe, a first-year teacher at Reunion Elementary, is representative of the young teachers 27J attracts and then loses to higher-paying districts. District 27J has the lowest starting and average teacher salaries of the 15 metro districts — and the turnover rate has been as high as 22 percent.
Overboe, who attended the public meeting and says she’s committed to staying in the district, supports moving to a four-day school week. But she understands families’ anxieties.
“As a parent I would have similar concerns; they want to support their kids,” she said.
While 27J staff members kept their presentation to an hour, they answered questions from parents, one-on-one, for several minutes afterward. Then Fiedler returned to the front of the room.
His voice had been hoarse all night, giving out after what he had described earlier as a week packed with the most interviews he’d ever given. But for the first time that evening, the sense of desperation broke through his words.
“I would never do this in a million years if I did not think this was our last chance to be great,” Fiedler said of the proposed switch to a four-day school week. “We can’t do it with our economic reality. We just can’t.”
A second community meeting was planned Feb. 7. The third meeting is scheduled 7-8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12, in the cafeteria at West Ridge Elementary School, 13102 Monaco St. in Thornton.