Local officials support shorter school year

Published 8:41 pm Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Educators and lawmakers statewide are divided over an effort toshorten the school year and implement small furloughs for teachersand school administrators, arguing over everything from time tomoney to the message such a policy would send.

Only one thing is for sure at this point – the kids would loveit.

But what is perhaps the biggest education issue being debated inthe Legislature this year has received support from local lawmakersand school officials as a cost-saving measure, a lesser of twoevils designed to save school districts what could be considerablemoney before cuts are made to personnel and programs. Despiteopposition from the state superintendent and some lawmakers,Lincoln County’s two superintendents support the measure.

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“I would rather lose days and keep programs the same instead ofhaving a higher student-teacher ratio or eliminating a program thatis effective for students,” said Brookhaven School DistrictSuperintendent Lea Barrett. “The only alternative is some kind ofreduction in services. With the budget cuts, we can’t just maintainwhat we’ve been doing.”

House Bill 1170, which has returned to the House from the Senateamended and is awaiting further action, would shorten the state’sschool year by five days for students and teachers, taking thestudent calendar from 180 to 175 days and the teachers’ calendarfrom 187 to 182 days. The bill also mandates teachers,administrators and other school personnel take a five-day furlougheach year, which would be taken during the non-instructional timeafter the student calendar is complete.

Five days is not a large amount of time in the grand scheme of a180-day school year, but altering the beginning or end of a schoolyear could generate recognizable savings. Barrett said theBrookhaven district spends an average of $93,000 per day on payrollalone, and shortening the school year would save not only thatamount but thousands more spent on utility costs for heating orcooling the buildings, fuel spent on bussing students and the costof operating the school cafeteria.

With daily costs reaching around the $100,000 mark, reducing theschool calendar by five days would immediately save around 25percent of the $1.9 million the district could lose in fiscal year2011, Barrett said.

One of the main arguments against the measure is that shorteningthe school year would reduce valuable instructional time forstudents in the nation’s poorest-performing school system, butBarrett said the correlation between school days and test scores isnot proven.

“During (Hurricane) Katrina we lost nine days, and our testscores actually went up that year,” she said. “It was just fromfolks working really, really hard. We had a lot of children whocame into the district from New Orleans and other places, and wewere so focused on pulling those children up that we pulled all thechildren up.”

Though taking five days off the school year may have a negativeimpact on classroom time, firing teachers would have worseconsequences, said Lincoln County School District SuperintendentTerry Brister. He agrees with those who oppose the effort oninstructional grounds, but recognizes the pressing needs created bythe state’s budgetary crisis.

“We need to take care of our teachers first – they’re on thebattleground. I’m in favor of any way we can save money withoutletting personnel go,” Brister said. “It doesn’t necessarily takecare of everything, but it helps save money.”

Lincoln County’s legislative delegation is united behind theidea of shortening the school year. It’s a hard decision that mustbe made, said District 53 Rep. Bobby Moak, D-Bogue Chitto.

“Literally, local school districts in the state are down to thepoint where they’re trying to keep form laying people off,” hesaid.

District 92 Rep. Becky Currie, R-Brookhaven, pointed out thatMississippi’s school year used to be 175 days before beinglengthened. She doubted that trimming five days off the year wouldhave an adverse effect on students.

“We have lengthened the school year so much that taking it backa little bit and turning the air conditioning off for a littlewhile is not going to kill us,” Currie said.

District 39 Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith has already voted in favor ofHB 1170. She said shortening the school year would allow districtsroom to maneuver through tough financial times.

“We’re asking them to do more with less, and I think we need togive them all the flexibility we can,” she said.

Whether the local enthusiasm for shortening the school year willextend to the House remains to be seen. HB 1170 was transmitted tothe Senate as a budget housekeeping bill and said nothing about theschool year. It took on its current language only after senatorsinserted an amendment approximately 14 times longer than the billitself.