News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett Opinion

March 24, 2010

Mark Bennett: Illinois legislators eye 4-day week for schools

. — When I was 8 years old, if somebody told me I’d have no school on Fridays, I’m sure I would’ve found other worthwhile activities to fill the void.

Like catching crawdads in the creek. Or playing baseball. Or climbing up the fire escape at Prairieton School. The latter required either bare feet or brand new sneakers to ascend that two-story, slick metal chute. (That probably explains those check marks in the “uses time wisely” column of my report cards. But I digress.)

One thing’s for sure — I would’ve been shocked to have my school week cut to four days a week from five.

It could happen for some Illinois school districts this fall, or in coming years.

The Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill Monday that would give individual school districts the option of setting a four-day week to save money. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Bill Black, passed the House overwhelmingly, 81-21. It now moves to the Senate, once the Legislature returns April 12 from its “spring break.”

Black, a Republican from Danville, said the proposal simply gives small, rural school districts a way to survive Illinois’ fiscal crisis.

It also provides a jolting wake-up call, showing just how bad things have gotten in the Land of Lincoln.

“We have finally focused attention that [makes people say], ‘My god, I had no idea,’” Black said by phone Wednesday from Springfield.

The dilemma faced by a tiny Vermilion County school district, Jamaica, prompted Black to pursue a bill to change the state code requiring five-day weeks. The superintendent told Black the cash-strapped state owes his district $350,000. In a community with just 3,000 residents, including 400 kids in grades K-12, that’s a lot of money. Yet, by law, his district must provide numerous services, such as bus service for every child living beyond a 1-mile radius of the schools.

The superintendent told Black he could save $100,000 by parking the buses, and turning the schools’ thermostats down and lights off, one extra day per week.

So Black crafted legislation that would allow school districts to operate on a four-day week. Students still would be required to attend school for the same number of hours per week, and per year. Thus, school days would be longer. Christmas, spring and summer breaks likely would be shortened.

Hardly an ideal situation. But, as Black said, “They’d rather do that than having the superintendent say, ‘I don’t have enough money to open school next fall.’”

Things haven’t reached that point in Illinois communities like Marshall, Martinsville and Hutsonville. But superintendents such as Jill Rogers, at Martinsville Community Unit School District C3, understand the impact of the state’s budget meltdown. (Just as an update, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and state lawmakers are trying to agree on a budget while facing a $13-billion deficit. As of Wednesday, the state was $782 million behind on its payments to Illinois’ 820 school districts, according to the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago.)

The predicament is “awful,” said Rogers, in her ninth year at Martinsville, which serves 404 K-12 students. “And it’s by far the worst I’ve seen.”

A four-day school week, though, is “not in the immediate future” for Martinsville, she said, “and certainly not next year.”

But other cuts have been made to cover a projected 17-percent cut in state funds for next year, which amounts to a $353,000 loss for Martinsville. As a result, Rogers explained, some cuts were approved by the district board this month. They’ll lose an elementary teacher, a classroom aide, a bus aide and a cook. Art instruction will be reduced. The softball program and the Villagers vocal group were eliminated.

There will be no new textbooks for 2010-11. All field trips are off. An automated parent-call telephone system will be discontinued.

All together, the cuts amount to about $275,000 of the expected $353,000 decrease in state funding.

Rogers heard of Colorado school districts that successfully used a four-day school week, but not as a budget remedy. For Illinois, today, she understands a shortened week could reduce custodial, food and bus service needs, “which could save money, and we’re all looking at doing that right now.”

At nearby Marshall Community Schools, Superintendent Rick Manuell said two teaching positions have been cut for next fall in that 1,400-student district. Also, teacher aides have been notified their positions could be affected by any changes in class size, Manuell said while emphasizing the district needs each of those employees.

Twenty miles south of Marshall on Illinois 1, Hutsonville Superintendent Roger Eddy expects his district, which mirrors Martinsville in student population, to see a nearly $300,000 reduction in state funding for the next school year. A cash surplus has helped Hutsonville Community Unit School District 1 absorb state cuts, said Eddy, who also serves in the Illinois House. A Republican, Eddy said the four-day school-week bill “allows flexibility” for individual districts, “and we need it.”

Most reaction to the idea, Black said, has been positive. One exception is Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who warned that closing schools one weekday would overburden parents needing day care for young children. Black responded: “Mayor Daley knows better than that, as long as he’s been in public service. Read the bill.” It is strictly optional, Black emphasized. Likely, only a few rural districts would consider it, he added.

Black looks at Indiana, just eight miles from his home, and sees a far different fiscal landscape. Funding cuts are happening in Indiana, too, “but they’re ahead of the game, while we’re 14-billion dollars in the hole,” he said.

His bill reflects the gloomy big picture.

“The real issue is not whether a district should [shift] to school four days a week,” Black said. “The real issue is, they shouldn’t be in that situation to begin with.”

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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