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Published April 14 2010

Norman County East considers four-day week

TWIN VALLEY, Minn. – Most here agree something bold must be done, soon.

Norman County East school leaders are on the cusp of deciding whether to switch to a four-day school week next fall. The proposal has resurrected another controversial cost-saving measure, which threatened to divide the communities of Gary and Twin Valley a few years back – closing the Gary elementary.

Now, some Gary residents are supportive of the four-day week idea in hopes it would help keep their school open, which they see as key to keeping the town vibrant. In Twin Valley, opponents of a four-day week call on the district to consolidate its sites.

But now, the superintendent and other school leaders say either one might not be enough.

“There’s a real possibility that we need to look at a four-day week and consolidating the two buildings,” said Superintendent Dean Krogstad. “We might need to do both.”

On Tuesday, the district hosted the final of three public meetings required to apply for state permission to switch to a four-day week. A decision from the board might come Monday.

Norman County East is working its way out of the red after the state placed it on a short list of financially troubled districts in 2007. The 330-student district is projected to lose more than 40 students in the next five years, taking away some $250,000 in per-pupil state funding a year. Krogstad projects that if the district doesn’t do anything, it might plunge back into the red by 2012.

That’s why the school board decided to consider a four-day week this spring – a change that could trim almost $50,000 in transportation and energy costs.

Last month, the district hosted the superintendent of MACCRAY, the first Minnesota district to adopt the change two years ago. Then, Principal Greg Lund and several teachers visited Blackduck, Minn., another of four converts in the state.

Both districts seem to have embraced the change, which officials there say brought benefits besides savings: improved attendance and morale, longer class periods, an end to “the Monday drags.”

“Everybody liked the change, and nobody wanted to go back,” Lund said about Blackduck, adding, “It was very encouraging.”

Although he thinks existing enrollment trends make closing the Gary site close to inevitable down the road, Lund says the four-day week should come first.

“I think it would be something to try,” Lund said in an interview. “You can always go back to a five-day week. But once you close a building, it’s hard to reopen it.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, residents – and some board members – brought up a litany of concerns about the four-day week. They worried about students cramming more school, extracurricular activities and homework into those four remaining days. They worried about lining up day care on the day off. They worried kids would waste time on Mondays and have a harder time getting back into learning mode after a three-day weekend.

Some expressed concern the move would affect the most economically vulnerable stakeholders: support staff whose hours would be cut and students qualifying for free and reduced lunch, whose parents would have to provide more nutritious meals and day care.

“I have a sick feeling in my stomach about saying, ‘I am so greedy about $45,000 that I am going to shift it onto the people who need a break the most,’ ” said board member Ross Opsahl.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529