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Minn. school district concerned about return to five-day week

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. – A four-day school week for students and teachers is going by the wayside in the Pelican Rapids School District, despite mostly positive reviews.

“I’m a little bit surprised, because we’ve had such high approval ratings from parents,” said Superintendent Deb Wanek.

“I’m kind of sad we’re going back,” said Jessica Fahje of Pelican Rapids, the mother of two elementary school children and one preschooler.

The decision, however, isn’t up to parents or the school district. Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius recently notified Pelican Rapids and four other four-day schools that they must return to a five-day week for the 2015-16 school year. Three other districts will revert this fall and three districts with four-day weeks come up for renewal in 2015 or 2016.

“This was an experiment,” Cassellius said of four-day school weeks.

She said the state needs to be aggressive in closing its achievement gap – and students need more time in class, not less.

“There are still too many children not reading at grade level,” she said.

Districts adopted a shorter week to save money.

Pelican Rapids went to a shorter week in fall 2010 after voters rejected an operating levy referendum.

Wanek said district leaders determined they wouldn’t have to cut staff or programs if they operated four days a week, saving about $100,000 annually in transportation, heating, water, electrical and garbage costs.

She said part of the problem is that her district receives $1,000 less per student than the state average.

The state disputes that assertion.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education, the Pelican Rapids district receives $803 per student below the state average.

It attributed the spread to a district referendum that’s $263 below the state average and deferred maintenance/facilities funding that’s $162 per pupil lower.

The district also receives less than average for special education aid.

State officials say that when looking at basic per-pupil funding, Pelican Rapids is at the same level as the rest of the state.

Cassellius said because the state is funding five days of school, students should be attending five days.

“What’s to stop them (the school districts) from going to a two-day week?” Cassellius asked.

Casselius also wonders how students are spending that additional day away from school.

“What are they doing at home that’s enriching them?” she asked.

Some parents say the extra day can be used for additional snow days and for life’s necessities.

“I’ve enjoyed that we can schedule doctor and other appointments, without them having to miss school,” Fahje said.

She is concerned the district will have to consider cutting teachers because of the change.

Eric Guler, a parent of four children in the Pelican Rapids district, shares that concern, fearing larger class sizes could be on the way.

“I would prefer that my kids be in a smaller class four days a week,” he said.

Guler said district administrators have done a good job making the longer days and shorter weeks work, and have frequently asked parents and teachers for feedback.

“They know what’s best for our kids,” he said.

A district survey done in January shows that 87 percent of parents and 86 percent of teachers felt the four-day week was meeting the students’ educational needs.

“I totally believe they’re getting a great education,” Fahje said.

How the Pelican Rapids district adjusts to returning to a five-day school week will depend in part on what state lawmakers decide with the next round of school funding.

Wanek said she and other administrators will have to make some decisions before fully knowing how much funding is coming down the line.

“It’s sad that the whole thing comes down to money,” Wanek said.