Lancaster ISD may cut back to 4 days; District says move would save $1.9M, but outrage, fears of W-H repeat arise

By Joshua Benton and Kathy A. Goolsby
Staff Writers

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Facing a budget crunch, Lancaster schools are considering a move that has traditionally been reserved for districts in fiscal crisis: cutting down to a four-day school week.

The sudden move, which requires state approval, would set students and teachers free on Fridays in exchange for longer school days the rest of the week. District officials say the new calendar would save about $1.9 million a year and help eat into a shortfall looming over next year’s budget.

Reaction to the unusual proposal among parents and other residents has not been positive.

“I’m outraged,” said Greg Stephenson, father of two Lancaster students. “They need to be considering changing to a six-day week, not cutting back. These kids need more time at school, not less.”

The district’s financial troubles come almost exactly three years after similar problems emerged in the neighboring Wilmer-Hutchins school district. The similarities are worrying to some.

“It’s scary – residents should definitely be very worried,” Lancaster school board member Carolyn Morris said of the district’s financial condition.

She was the only board member to vote against seeking a state waiver for the four-day proposal at a board meeting Monday night. A public hearing on the issue is scheduled tonight at Lancaster High School.

Larry Lewis, the district’s superintendent, said through a representative Wednesday that he was too busy to speak to the media about his plan. The representative added that Dr. Lewis was the only person in the district qualified to speak about the issue.

The proposal calls for school days that some might consider epic. Elementary students would be in class from 7:45 a.m. to 4:25 p.m. High school classes would stretch from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., longer than many adults’ workdays.

“People who have jobs after school, it’s going to be hard on them,” said Lancaster High senior Tymika Jarvis. “Staying in school that long will throw you off a bit. And with all the extra stuff after school, you wouldn’t have that much time to do everything.”

Maria Esparza, president of Lancaster’s Council of PTAs, said she’s been fielding lots of calls from angry parents. She said the plan will create a hardship for working parents.

“My job won’t let me be off on Fridays, and I’m not going to put my seventh-grader in Tiger Time,” the district’s after-school program, she said. “So I’m going to have to find an individual to take care of her.”

More Tiger Time

Lancaster has one of North Texas’ poorest student bodies, with about two-thirds of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. The district plans to offer an all-day version of Tiger Time on Friday that will cost families $25 a week per child – or about $900 a year.

Even strong backers of Dr. Lewis are questioning the new schedule. Community activist Roosevelt Nichols said charging parents $25 for Friday day care would be abusive.

“To turn them out of school, then turn around and charge them to come to school on Friday – that should be illegal,” Mr. Nichols said. “It may solve the district’s financial burden, but it’s going to cost the parents and the community.”

But Lancaster trustee Russ Johnson said Dr. Lewis should be given the chance to show the benefits of a short week.

“I think there will be a lot of resistance to it, which is always the case when you introduce new things,” he said. “It will depend on how well Dr. Lewis and his staff can sell the community on the program’s merits.”

Four-day school weeks are uncommon. The first school to adopt one did so to cut costs during the energy crisis in 1972. A 2003 survey by the National Association of School Boards found that only about 100 of the roughly 15,000 school districts nationwide had four-day weeks.

They exist almost entirely in rural areas, mostly in Colorado and New Mexico. That’s because a four-day week means one fewer day of bus service – a major expense in districts that cover large swaths of territory. Children often work on the family farm or ranch on their extra day off.

“It worries me how it would work in an urban context,” said Bob Richburg, a professor emeritus of education at Colorado State. He started studying four-day weeks more than 20 years ago.

Lancaster Police Chief Dan Shiner said it’s too early to tell what kind of effect giving students Fridays off would have on the city. “It’s summertime now and everybody’s out of school, and we’re able to deal with it,” he said.

In a presentation to board members Monday, Dr. Lewis said four-day weeks brought a “documented increase in student achievement.” But Dr. Richburg says that’s not true. His own study comparing four- and five-day districts in Colorado found no gains.

“I just think they’re trying to find something to justify a position they want to take for other reasons,” he said.

The cost savings from a four-day week tend to be in transportation and utility bills. But Lancaster doesn’t predict huge savings in those categories – $90,000 and $250,000, respectively. That would only be about 1 percent of last year’s budget.

It predicts that the largest savings – $1.1 million – will come from cutting 13 positions at the high school that it says will become unnecessary on a four-day schedule.

Dr. Richburg said four-day schedules could be academically productive if properly set up. For example, some such schools require Friday tutoring sessions for all students in academic trouble. Other districts use Fridays for intensive teacher training.

“But if you do things like that, you’re not going to save any money,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Lancaster will be able to get the Texas Education Agency’s approval for a four-day week. The agency allows districts to adopt what it calls an Optional Flexible Year Program, which allows minor changes to the calendar to aid in instruction.

But that program sets a number of requirements that it appears Lancaster can’t meet. It also requires that a district submit its request at least 90 days before the start of the school year. School starts Aug. 27, so that deadline passed weeks ago.

State approval is important because Texas public schools are funded based on their average daily attendance. Fewer days of school means less state funding.

Lancaster could use a different part of state law to try to get around state calendar requirements.

As of the close of business Wednesday, TEA had not received a formal request for a waiver from Lancaster.

Earlier financial woes

Whatever happens with the four-day week, Lancaster’s most pressing concerns remain financial. The district has run afoul of state regulators on the issue before.

This spring, Lancaster missed a state deadline to report an annual audit of the district’s books. That automatically earned the district a rare failing grade in the state’s annual financial accountability ratings.

When the audit was finally completed – more than two months late – it produced financial figures that didn’t match what the district had reported separately to state officials.

The district audit report also criticized Lancaster’s internal financial management. The district’s main bank account had not been reconciled for over a year – and when it was, “a significant unreconciled difference existed,” the auditors wrote.

State data show Lancaster spends a larger percentage of its funds on administration (16 percent) than state guidelines consider the maximum advisable (12 percent).

At the audit’s closing date in August, the district had less than $275,000 in its general fund. Earlier this year, that total had dropped below $30,000, said Ms. Morris, the school board member. In at least three of the past four years, the district had to borrow more than $3 million to meet its expenses.

Part of the problem is in the district’s budgeting. According to the audit, the district budgeted $36.2 million in revenue for the 2005-06 school year. Revenue proved to be $31.9 million.

Lancaster residents hope their district doesn’t move in the direction of its former neighbor, Wilmer-Hutchins. For years, the two districts had the area’s worst test scores.

When Wilmer-Hutchins officials decided in 2005 to shut their schools and ship students to a neighboring district, Lancaster was their first choice. But there was widespread public opposition, with some Lancaster parents saying their own district was in too precarious a position to risk taking on the Wilmer-Hutchins students.

“If your boat is already sinking, you don’t put another rock in the boat,” one resident, Herman Tucker, said at the time. Wilmer-Hutchins was eventually dissolved and merged into the larger Dallas school district – a decision that still angers many residents.

TEA officials said they have no current audits or investigations under way in Lancaster.