LAND O'LAKES — School systems pondering a move to four-day weeks look to transportation savings as a key rationale for the move. By taking school buses off the road one day a week, the district would save money on bus driver pay and fuel costs.
But it turns out they won't get to pocket much of the savings.
Officials in Marion County were shocked to learn recently that their plan for a four-day week would also bring a 20 percent cut in transportation funding from the state.
The news shook Marion's School Board so much that a majority moved to cancel its plan to begin four-day weeks in the fall, just months after adopting the concept. And now it's got a Pasco County exploratory task force concerned, too.
"That's some savings we might have anticipated three months ago that now we're not saving," said Pasco School Board member Steve Luikart, who heads the four-day week committee he proposed in the fall.
Unlike in Marion, Pasco district administrators have not championed the idea of having students attend four longer school days and adding a day off. Even with the district facing a roughly $20 million budget shortfall next year, superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her staff recommended against such a calendar, suggesting that it would do more harm than good.
Nonetheless, the staff projected that if a four-day week was adopted, the district could save about $3.2 million, with much of the amount coming in transportation.
Last year Luikart asked for an investigative task force to look further into the subject, saying he doubted the district's math. If the board is to say no, he argued, it should have the best information available.
His colleagues reluctantly approved. The panel began meeting in September.
The group has collected data from around the country, which it's compiling into reports to review at a Jan. 26 meeting. It has conducted an informal survey of residents, which ends today, and it's preparing to hold public input sessions in mid-February before making a presentation to the full board.
The task force does not plan to recommend any action.
Luikart said he's still uncertain of where he stands on the four-day week. He wants to make spending cuts that avoid reductions in personnel and programs, yet he sees that a change to the work conditions would have far reaching implications throughout the district that also could prove costly.
"I see the benefits of both sides, and I see the drawbacks of both sides," he said, adding that perhaps the research might expose areas for spending cuts that don't require changing the calendar.
Lynne Webb, president of the United School Employees of Pasco, sits on the panel and recommended about a third of its membership. She said she entered the debate as a non-supporter, and she still sees more costs than benefits.
"What came out loud and clear was the only real, true savings is going to come from salaries," Webb said, pointing to cuts for bus drivers, cafeteria workers, instructional aides and even teachers, who could lose a weekly paid lunch and planning period.
The fact of "difficult and protracted bargaining" to amend contracts also carries a cost, Webb said.
Not only that, she said, several concerns have arisen that students — particularly those in poverty — might not be best served in just four days of school. Government subsidized meals, for instance, are not available during the school year when classes are not in session.
In Marion, the issue of less transportation savings than expected carried a lot of weight, district spokesman Kevin Christian said. Board members there also heard from people in the community that don't want four-day weeks, he added.
"Now, they don't want to do it," Christian said. "We are basically back to square one" as far as budget cutting.
The Marion board is expected to rescind its four-day week calendar on Feb. 14, and adopt a traditional one on Feb. 28.
Pasco board members said they remained open to the idea. But some of the issues popping up in Marion matter here too.
"I do have my doubts," board member Alison Crumbley said. "I am afraid it will be perceived as a lower standard of education. I don't want that to preempt businesses from coming here, other resources, families."
Chairwoman Joanne Hurley said she wanted to keep a perspective. Budget savings matter, she said.
But it "has to come second to doing what is best for kids," Hurley insisted, saying she looked forward to seeing the task force materials.
Along with Marion, Pasco is the only Florida school district seriously considering four-day weeks.
Broward officials looked into the idea two years ago and rejected it. Palm Beach leaders put the concept near the bottom of their list in 2011 when pondering budget cutting strategies.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.