Should Maine Cut School Days to Cut Costs?

Maine is in a budget crunch. That isn’t news to anyone, including educators. Education takes the biggest slice of the pie (40% of the state budget), so it is sure to face cuts.  That isn’t news either.  With a $66 million budget gap on their minds, lawmakers gathered yesterday to discuss what cuts could be made to make ends meet.  “In all likelihood, we need to be prepared to bear a portion of the revenue shortfall,” said Education Commissioner Sue Gendron.  “I was clear with the superintendents — I don’t know how much that is, and that I’ve not been given direction as to what the target is.” One suggestion to cut costs has been school shutdown days. 

Maine schools are required by law to hold 175 days of instruction.  According to Commissioner Gendron cutting just one day could save state and local school districts $7 million.  Gendron said that reducing school days would be preferable to cutting programs or taking a “nickle and dime” approach to trimming spending. “Granted, it has an impact, but you still preserve the whole infrastructure of offerings,” said Gendron.  Nothing has been decided yet.

In a letter to Maine superintendents, Commissioner Gendron highlighted some of the tough budget cutting options that could be implemented:

My primary goal, supported by the Governor, is to protect classroom education to the fullest extent possible. The choices are unpleasant: Should we reduce programs across the board, or eliminate one or two in their entirety? Which is better – to lay off some teachers (and thus eliminate classroom learning opportunities for an extended period), or have shutdown days? Given the current extraordinary financial situation, it would be irresponsible not to consider and research all options, in particular if the only other options are to eliminate programs such as Advanced Placement or arts.

The decisions that must be made to reduce the state’s education budget will certainly not be easy.  Those options must be analyzed and thought out clearly before anything is implemented.  There is still federal money at stake.

Several states, including Alabama, Colorado, Kentucky, Missouri, North Dakota, Vermont, and Wyoming, send their children to school as many days as Maine or less.  180 days is the most common length of a state’s school year.  Now is not the time to shorten the school year.  Without charter schools Maine is already at a disadvantage in Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top.  Even though Duncan has not expressly labeled school year length as criteria for receiving funds he did say “American students are at a competitive disadvantage because the United States has shorter school years than other countries such as India and China.”

I don’t believe that extending the school year alone will help America’s students.  A low quality education is just as ineffective at 280 days as it is at 180. We shouldn’t lose sight on curriculum, technology, teaching method and other reforms. However, we cannot afford to cut school days at this time. Besides the possible loss of Race to the Top funding, there could be other hidden costs with a reduction of school days. One would be the added cost to parents. Many parents pay for after school care or care for their children when school is out but they still have to work. Commissioner Gendron stated in a letter to Maine superintendents that she recognizes the costs extended to parents who have to find and pay for child care on shut down days. When you are on a tight budget, that extra cost could put someone over on their spending limits. In a relatively low income state this should be a concern. This does not mean that the purpose of schools is childcare, just that cutting school days directly leads to an increase in a parents’ cost for childcare. Gendron suggested that a better solution may be “teacher-only days,” allowing children to still attend school, but administrative staff to remain home.

Others have expressed their disapproval with state mandated school furloughs. Dick Durost, Executive Director of the Maine Principals’ Association, expressed two concerns about using shut down days to trim costs:

It appears to be a simplistic solution that becomes compounded greatly when one considers the impact on local teacher and other contracts. Those contracts guarantee certain salaries and benefits I suspect those contracts cannot be arbitrarily changed just because the minimum number of school days is decreased by a change in the law.

I still believe the best way to deal with the state shortfall is to tell districts what the decrease in their funding will be, and to then let local school boards, superintendents, principals and teachers determine how those cuts should best play out locally. One blueprint will not fit Caribou, Bangor, Lubec, Jackman, Augusta, Cape Elizabeth, Hiram, and Kittery.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Rosa Scarcelli has been vocal in her opposition of shut down days.  Through her Twitter account Scarcelli has expressed a strong opposition to the idea. “Could there be a worse idea,” Scarcelli said.  Dirigo Blue published an email from Scarcelli which argued against shut down days.

For a state that already has one of the shortest school years in the country, there has to be a better solution. That we’re even considering a plan to balance the state budget on the backs of school children and their parents with one-time, quick fixes like school shutdown days clearly shows how bad our state’s budget problems have become. And it shows why we need a change of direction in Augusta.

Consider the ramifications. Parents will have to take time off from work or find childcare for their children. Low-income families that rely on the school lunch program will pay more to make sure their children get enough to eat. The interruption in classes will be difficult for teachers too, who are already hard-pressed to find the time to comply with state and federal mandates.

We can’t rely on a band-aid approach. We need strong financial management and more creative, bold thinking. Have we truly looked at all the options? School officials say shutting down the schools for a few days a year will save on heat and electricity costs. Maybe local school districts should consider more vacation time in the winter when heating costs are high and extending the school year into the summer.

Teachers and students will also bear the burden of a reduction of school days.  Teachers face the challenge of instructing increasingly distracted student body. Think of yourself before a long weekend, or the weekend period. You’ve probably checked out before lunch, maybe even before your first break. Now think about a teacher, trying to maintain some continuity in their lessons with their students being interrupted by thoughts of the weekend. Add the long period of review required after each summer break and you begin to see what a monumental task teaching can be. Do we want to add to that difficulty?

There are other solutions out there not including eliminating programs. A shifting of the school year, shifting summer time off evenly throughout the year could reduce heating costs.  I am dubious of how much this approach would actually save.  Where I grew up it was hot and humid more days than not in the summer.  Schools just aren’t equipped, or at least they weren’t, to handle oppressive weather.  There would be a cost to outfit schools with air conditioning and a cost to run that equipment.

Stephen Bowen of the Maine Heritage Policy Center believes that shut down days are a terrible way to balance the education budget. Bowen offers several alternatives that should be considered. School consolidation, which the state has fumbled badly, was an opportunity to “generate real savings by cutting down on over-administration and duplication of services. The approach I proposed, which was to create regional “service districts” that handled back-office operations, facility maintenance, transportation and so forth for a number of districts, would have saved millions without completely restructuring the entire system by which our school districts are organized and run.”

Bowen also proposed a restricting of teacher pay scales to cut costs.  Bowen hopes that we are able to secure federal education stimulus funds, but believes that our lack of charter schools will be detrimental to those efforts.  “I’m amazed, frankly,” said Bowen,  “that the Maine Education Association would rather have school shutdown days, which will cut the pay of every teacher in Maine, than allow the state to enact charter schools. They wouldn’t say that they do, of course, but that is the choice that has been created by their recalcitrance on charter schools.  If we had charter schools, we’d be more likely to get federal education funding. Since we don’t, the options for cutting costs at this point are few.”

The Maine School Management Association helped organize the superintendent’s conference sponsored by Commissioner Gendron at which the idea for school shut down days was bounced around.  A bulletin from the MSMA  provides a list of options, including shut down days, to reduce the budget:

  • Adopt a statewide teacher contract
  • Look at a statewide bid for health insurance
  • Change the 90-day reduction-in-force notice for teachers to 30 days
  • Loosen federal restrictions on the use of Title 1 and special education funding
  • Take a regional approach to pre-kindergarten education
  • Remove some restrictions on early retirement
  • Adopt a two-year school budget versus the current annual one so districts have discretion over two years worth of funding
  • State mandated furlough days for schools
  • Simplify the process for closing schools
  • Impose a statewide freeze on all salaries, including superintendents
  • Look again at cutting back school sports budgets, particularly in transportation
  • Streamline the teacher certification process
  • Align Maine’s special education standards with federal standards
  • Look at other measures of wealth in addition to property values when distributing GPA
  • Reject a proposal to require cities and towns to pick up a portion of teacher retirement costs
  • Regionalize the teaching of upper-end and Advance Placement classes

Looking at this list there are some possibilities.  Many of them look as though they would meet greater resistance than school shut down days: making it easier to close schools, cutting back sports budgets, using property values to determine GPA (General Purpose Aid) amounts.

A quick browse of the comments on coverage of the story here and here show many suggestions for administrators to take days off and the Department of Education to make cuts in their offices. If the Department of Education is asking districts to face cuts their budgets should be on the surgery table as well. Any cuts will be difficult.  There will be winners and losers no matter which way the pendulum swings. Thoughtful strategic cuts, with an emphasis on greater efficiency should be at the forefront.

(Cross-posted at Augusta Insider)

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2 Responses

  1. […] Consolidation is not the only education issue the MEA has been silent on.  When the issue of cutting school days to save money came up the MEA made no public comment.  Nor have they said anything publicly about […]

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