May 29, 2008— -- The proverbial "snow day" is getting an update for the modern economic times.
We've all heard of schools closing because of heavy snowfall, but what about high gas prices?
That's just what is happening in some of the nation's most rural and remote school districts. As the price of gas continues to climb, they're shutting their doors one day a week in order to save on heating and busing costs.
The MACCRAY School District in western Minnesota voted earlier this month to switch to a four-day school week beginning in September. The decision to close the schools on Mondays will mean slightly longer hours on the other four days, but it will also mean a three-day weekend, every week.
"We thought about going to a four-day school week because we needed to save money. We just don't have money and we would like to try to save as many positions as we can in district," said superintendent Greg Schmidt.
The three-town district, about 120 miles west of St. Paul, has 700 students spread out over 354 miles. Some students come from 20 miles away.
The district pays a bus company $650,000 a year to operate 11 rural bus routes and one in town. Switching to a four-day week, Schmidt said, will cut the cost by $65,000.
Gas expenses aren't the only savings the district expects to realize by switching to a four-day school week.
"We'll turn our thermostats down for a three-day weekend instead of a two-day weekend," Schmidt said. "We'll go from 68 degrees to 60 degrees."
That could add up to big savings during those not-so-warm Minnesota winters.
"We also think that there will be more of an opportunity for staff to schedule appointments on Mondays so we won't have to find subs for them which we estimate to be a little over a $10,000 savings," Schmidt said, adding that the district's decision was based purely on budgetary concerns.
And it could be permanent.
"In our situation, with our present budget, assuming things go fairly well, I don't image we would go back to a five-day school week," Schmidt said. "I think there will be more and more schools wanting to do something like this if it works out."
A four-day school week is not a new idea, but with rising gas prices it does become more appealing.
One of the first — if not the first — districts in the country to switch to such a schedule was Cimarron, N.M. The Cimarron district made the move to a four-day week in January 1974 in reaction to the oil embargo by Arab nations. Three decades later, there are 18 districts statewide, including Cimarron, on such schedules, according to the New Mexico Department of Education.
Four-day schedules have also spread to rural areas in other states, including Utah, Oregon, South Dakota and Wyoming. Colorado, for instance, now has 67 of its 178 districts on a four-day school week.
The Custer School District in South Dakota is now in its 13th year of four-day weeks. The school system has 900 students spread out over 1,200 square miles, according to superintendent Tim Creal. Some kids travel more than 30 miles to get to school.
The district saves $50,000 to $70,000 a year thanks to its schedule, Creal said, with the bulk of that coming from transportation costs.
Also in southwestern South Dakota is the Wall School District, which switched to a four-day schedule three years ago and does not use buses at all. But it still has transportation costs.
The district has 257 students spread out over 1,320 square miles — more than half the size of Rhode Island. Instead of buses, the district now reimburses parents for driving their kids to school, according to superintendent Dennis Rieckman.
"We have some ranches that are 30 to 40 miles out one way," Rieckman said. "It isn't feasible really to have bus routes, so we pay the mileage."
Rieckman said the four-day week also gives parents and families more time do things together and leads to fewer student absences.
The nearest place for health care or big shopping, Rieckman said, is Rapid City, about 50 miles away. If a student needs to see a doctor, parents can now schedule appointments for Friday instead of having children miss out on a day of school.
"It just takes a while to get anywhere. You just don't hop in your pickup and drive into town to do anything. People have to plan out things first," he said. "You don't just get in your vehicle and run down to the local Wal-Mart."