By Jeff Grant, DAILY NEWS-SUN
PEORIA, Ariz. – Thirty-seven thousand students who attend class at 34 elementary schools, seven high schools and one nontraditional high school in the Peoria Unified School District may shift to a 4-day school week beginning next fall.
District officials will begin studying the possibility of going to the shorter week as a way to offset years of reductions in state aid, including an estimated $5 million cut in state funding under Gov. Doug Ducey’s proposed budget, Schools Superintendent Dr. Denton Santarelli told the School Governing Board Thursday night. The superintendent said there is a likelihood of more reductions in at least the next four years as Arizona’s governor and lawmakers grapple with more forecast budget shortfalls.
“We are at a point where we have to deal with some extreme measures to deal with the reductions,” he said. “It doesn’t appear this is going to go away. We know the impact on the community. (But) when you take a look at solving problems in multiple years, you’re looking at a different strategy,” Santarelli explained.
"We’re doing this reluctantly," added school district spokeswoman Danielle Airey. "There’s little left to explore that would not affect the health, safety and academic excellence that our students and families have come to expect," she explained.
“This is huge,” said Board member Kathy Knecht. “We’re being asked to consider a fundamental structural change. It’s sad we’re being put up against the wall and that we’re going to have to go down this road.”
Santarelli said the state faces budget shortfalls of between half a billion and a billion dollars in each of the next four fiscal years, starting with the current one, which ends June 30, 2015. In addition, he said it appears unlikely local schools will be receiving $1.2 billion in aid they contend they are owed after being shortchanged by the state under Proposition 301, a previous voter-approved funding mandate. Lawmakers, the Governor’s Office and school districts are still trying to reach a settlement.
Specifics of the shorter school week were not discussed by the superintendent or the board, including length of the school day or which day of the week would be eliminated. Although a longer school day is likely, since state law requires public schools provide a minimum number of instructional minutes per school year.
Airey said school hours and the day of the week that would be eliminated would be determined through the study.
"We’ll be looking at the impact on transportation, food and nutrition, academic achievement, scheduling, how the day will be for primary younger students, as well as high school students. We will look at extracurricular activities and athletics, as well as employees -- how they will accomplish their jobs -- and any correlation between ability to attract and retain best and brightest employees," Airey explained in an interview Friday.
The spokeswoman said the shorter school week is used in some districts -- mainly rural ones -- across the United States, and that Peoria would look at the experiences of districts that have opted for the shorter school week.
Heidi Vega, spokeswoman for the Arizona School Boards Association, said Globe Public Schools and the Miami Unified School District, both small districts in southern Arizona, have used a 4-day week since 2011.
Using a slide presentation, Santarelli told board members potential annual savings to the district through a shorter school week include $1.6 million in utilities, $2.5 million in food service and $1.6 million in transportation – for a total of $5.7 million – enough to more than offset the forecasted maximum loss under Ducey’s proposed budget.
However, the schedule change would involve affecting more than students, noted Board President Matthew Bullock.
“There’s a domino effect. When you start extending the school day, then it’s sports, it’s bands…it’s jobs, and transportation as well,” he said.
Santarelli said a schedule shift would not reduce teacher salaries. “That’s not what this is about at all,” he said.
Hourly employees, however, could be affected.
A task force will begin studying the concept of a shorter school week immediately and report back to the board in 30 days. Knecht asked for an interim update in two weeks, which the district is expected to provide. The task force will include district staff and school personnel.
In the meantime, board members urged the public to contact the district with their thoughts.
“I would like to have input from the community and see if they have any ideas,” said member Beverly Pingerelli.
Santarelli said the concept of a 4-day school week is not new.
The idea came from community members two years ago and was revived over the past couple of weeks through regular district employee chats, he told the board.
The superintendent, panel and community were urged to put pressure on state lawmakers and the governor to restore at least some education funding.
“For 16 years, we tightened our belt. I’m going to challenge you and every (school) board members in the state. It’s time we tell the kids, ‘we care about you.’ Tell the governor and legislators to get off their butts, figure out how to solve this problem, and quit putting it on the backs of our children,” said Shawn Wheeler.