Schools eye four-day week to cut fuel costs

NEW YORK Thu Jul 24, 2008 2:31pm EDT

A gasoline pump nozzle is seen at a gas station in Arlington, Virginia, June 11, 2008. REUTERS/Jim Young

A gasoline pump nozzle is seen at a gas station in Arlington, Virginia, June 11, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Jim Young

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NEW YORK (Reuters) - Facing a crippling increase in fuel costs, some rural U.S. schools are mulling a solution born of the '70s oil crisis: a four-day week.

Cutting out one day of school has been the key to preserving educational programs and staff in parts of Kentucky, New Mexico and Minnesota, outweighing some parents' concerns about finding day-care for the day off.

"For rural school districts where buses may travel 100 miles round-trip each day, there certainly are transportation savings worth considering," said Marc Egan, the director of federal affairs at the National School Boards Association.

Egan said about 100 schools in as many as 16 states have already moved to a four-day school week, many to save money on transportation, heating and cooling.

Nevada's White Pine School District switched just one of its schools to a four-day week three years ago. Now, with energy costs soaring, four other schools in the district are following suit.

"We're looking at it district-wide with energy costs being at the forefront of the conversation," said Bob Dolezal, superintendent of Nevada's White Pine County School District, which is facing a 14 percent budget cut due to a shortfall in state funding.

MACCRAY Public Schools in Minnesota, which voted to switch to a four-day week in May, expects to shave 10 percent off transportation costs, which have risen unexpectedly in recent years as fuel costs have shot up.

"The savings for a four-day week just on the transportation alone were $65,000," said MACCRAY superintendent Greg Schmidt.

The plan initially did cause alarm among some parents, who were concerned about finding child-care, but most have managed to find place their kids in day care or with relatives, Schmidt said. In addition, MACCRAY plans to institute a child-care certification program for older students to offer day care for younger kids on the day off.

One of the pioneers of the four-day week, the Cimarron, New Mexico school district, is looking to cut energy costs by getting back to its roots.

Cimarron Public Schools moved a four-day week when energy prices shot up in the early 1970s, but has become more "complacent," letting the heating and cooling systems run even during the day off since the end of the OPEC oil embargo, Cimarron's superintendent James Gallegos said.

With soaring energy costs, that will no longer be the case: "As we start the next school year, it's going to be very minimal on the Fridays that we are off," Gallegos said.

Webster County School District in Kentucky switched to a four-day week four years ago under economic duress -- a state budget crisis left the school in limbo, leaving the district with the option of dropping school days or cutting staff and programs.

The district ended up saving tens of thousands of dollars in fuel and energy costs, helping to cut total costs by 3.5 to 4 percent, said James Kemp, the superintendent of the Webster County School District.

The shortened week at Webster also brought unexpected benefits such as improved attendance and a boost in student performance.

"If we were to go back to a five-day week, the school board and I would be run out of town," Kemp said.

(Editing by David Wiessler)

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