Flexible School Days

Posted Sept. 10, 2008, at 7:42 p.m.

A proposal by a Saco legislator to give local schools the flexibility to schedule four-day weeks has the makings of a good idea even if the details change.

Democratic Sen. Nancy Sullivan, a longtime seventh-grade social studies teacher, wants to change Maine rules so that instead of requiring students to be in classrooms 175 days each year, schools would have to meet an hours-in-school standard. How individual schools schedule those hours — perhaps over a four-day week — would be up to local school boards.

The driving force behind the move is, of course, high fuel prices. If buses are rolling four days a week instead of five and if the thermostat could be dialed down over a three-day weekend in the dead of winter, schools could cut their expenditures.

There also are serious impediments to a four-day school week. Children, especially young ones, may be exhausted by sitting in class six or seven hours a day instead of the typical five. Athletic and extracurricular programs would be affected. Teacher and staff contracts would have to be renegotiated.

And a four-day week would wreak havoc with household scheduling and day care. Savings achieved in the school budget might equal the additional money parents would have to shell out for additional child care, thereby merely shifting costs.

But a change in educational requirements like that proposed by Sen. Sullivan would give districts another tool to find their way through the uncharted territory of $4 per gallon heating oil and $4 per gallon diesel fuel. When the state pushed districts to join with neighboring districts, it expected local school officials to be creative in finding savings in administration, special education, building operation and maintenance and transportation. Sen. Sullivan’s bill would create some flexibility which school boards sorely need to find answers to new problems.

The state Department of Education is considering creating its own version of new rules. And the Maine Educational Association, the union that represents educators, is willing to consider adapting to a different schedule.

The issue comes down to trust. How much is the state willing to trust local school boards to make decisions that balance fiscal restraint with the educational needs of students?

One of the improvements to the way education is managed in Maine coming out of the school consolidation effort is that school boards now may have more stature, since they are responsible for managing much larger institutions. Instead of seeing candidates for school boards running unopposed, or positions being filled by appointment, people from the community with professional backgrounds in education, business or management may seek to serve. Such boards should be able to make responsible scheduling decisions.

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