From staff reports

Nestled between two pastures, the Orearville school lies alongside a winding stretch of County Road P, just outside Slater.

The school is vacant on Mondays. Six years ago, the building was nearly empty every day of the week.

Velda Norris, left, Pam Romine and Carson Knowles serve lunch to Makenna Keller and Bonnie Johnson in the Orearville school cafeteria. Many rural schools switch to a four-day school week to save money on non-certified personnel costs such as cooks, custodians and bus drivers. Norris, Orearville’s Director of Nutritional Services, is a fan. “I love the four days,” Norris said. “It’s a no-brainer for us,” Romine added. Photo by Nadav Soroker/Missourian

The school would have been easy to pass by, just another roadside relic. But when the school board made the decision to switch to four-day weeks, it saved itself from becoming another artifact.

More and more schools in Missouri, mostly rural, are switching to four-day school weeks. With tight budgets and high transportation costs, the schools make the choice out of desperation.

Since 2011, schools have been able to make the switch to shorter weeks thanks to a change of state statute that lifted the 174 school-day requirement and lowered it to 142 days but with the same 1,044 hour requirement.

If a district fails to meet at least two performance requirements, then it has to move back to a five-day week and the 174-day requirement.

Seventeen school districts switched to four-day school weeks; two subsequently stopped.

It was this statute change that saved the Orearville school. Faced with bankruptcy and closure, Orearville made the decision to switch six years ago; for them, it was do or die. Orearville had already been borrowing money to make it through the school year and had depleted its reserves. It held a town meeting to inform people of the switch, and it’s been going strong ever since.

Similarly, tight budgets and high transportation costs spurred East Newton School District to switch to a four-day week.

Students rehearse for the Orearville school spring musical under the direction of music teacher Nancy Meyer. Students from preschool through second grade will sing about spring, while older students will perform an adaptation of ‘Tom Sawyer.’ Gene Neff, administrative assistant, is proud the school still offers extracurriculars, despite budgetary problems six years ago. Photo by Nadav Soroker/Missourian

Students in East Newton, located in Newton County, travel anywhere from 45 minutes to 2.5 hours a day to get to school. The predominantly rural school district has to bus students “well over 1,000 miles a day,” former Superintendent Todd McCrackin said.

McCrackin said the district is heavily dependent on state revenue, so with high transportation costs and precarious transportation funding, the district was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

The General Assembly is currently deciding the state budget, which would affect how much money schools get for transportation. In Gov. Eric Greitens’ proposed budget, school transportation was cut by $36 million, which school officials said they would have to make up by taking money out of classrooms. The House’s proposed budget put the money back to fund transportation; the budget moves to the Senate for consideration this week.

Sarah Potter, communications coordinator for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the department hasn’t really seen any big savings from school districts that switch to four-day weeks. She said the districts that switch only see around a 1 percent savings on average.

One of Orearville school’s two buses pass by on County Road P heading toward Slater, Missouri, the closest town to the rural school. Each of the two buses spends about an hour each morning picking up students, and then an hour each afternoon dropping them off, totaling between 60 and 75 miles driven a day.
Photo by Nadav Soroker/Missourian

But many districts that switch to four-day school weeks are happy with their decision, and wouldn’t go back to a five-day week even if funding was restored.

“You think, wow, going four days a week, it doesn’t seem like it would work. But it’s helped us financially, and our performance of our students on their (standardized) MAP test hasn’t suffered at all,” said Gene Neff, administrative assistant for Orearville.

Neff said that the first year Orearville switched to a four-day week, the district only planned to save around $25,000 from its total budget, which at the time was about $700,000 a year.

But, to administrators’ surprise and delight, the district was able to save around $30,000 and has continued each year. It was able to use this money to invest into its school and stop borrowing money to get through the school year.

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