139 school districts in Oklahoma went to a four day school week for the 2016-2017 school year. That is almost one third of every school district in Oklahoma.
Inola Public Schools was the district right at the forefront of this move. Superintendent Kent Holbrook announced the decision shortly after reviewing the district’s budget allocations from the state in January 2016, and many other schools around the state followed his lead.
With recent reports that Oklahoma’s budget is still in peril, that further cuts to public education could be taking place soon and considering that students have now been in school for nearly three months, it is time to see how the four day week is working.
According to US Census data, in 2013 Oklahoma was the fourth lowest in state spending per student on education. That same data also revealed that as a state, we have made the deepest cuts to school spending out of any state since the 2008 recession.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities data shows that the percent change in state formula funding per student between 2008 and 2017 for Oklahoma is -26.9 percent, where the next closest, Alabama, is -14.2 percent. On the opposite end of the spectrum, North Dakota increased spending by 27.2 percent.
Oklahoma’s spending per student is $9,122 which is $3,374 less than the national average each year.
2016 marks the eighth year Oklahoma teachers have gone without a pay raise, despite inflation. This has occurred alongside teacher layoffs in smaller districts and increasing class sizes across the state. Despite having no increase in pay, teachers have to purchase all the additional supplies and resources they will need in their classrooms.
Tulsa Public Schools receives 54 percent of all revenue collected in property tax from the city. However, 55 percent of public school students in Oklahoma attend small town or rural schools where cuts have had a higher impact. Rural communities do not have the funds to give extra support to their schools with an average 18.9 percent poverty rate.
Holbrook described Oklahoma’s budget issues with reference to the biblical story of Joseph. In the story, the Egyptians stored a surplus of grain during a time of abundance so that in the eventual years of famine they were able to survive. Holbrook compared this to how Oklahoma and other oil states reacted to the oil boom of 2010-2011.
“Every other oil state in the union: Texas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Alaska, all of them kept taxes on oil the same or they raised taxes. During those years they were pulling the money in.”
During the oil boom North Dakota raised taxes from 8 to 12 percent. By contrast, Oklahoma lowered taxes from 5 to 1 percent. “You have companies from Texas, Missouri, Kansas, all coming into Oklahoma, pulling out an Oklahoma natural resource, paying us one percent, and when the bust happened, they all left.”
“If you’re going to only take one percent, that’s almost nothing, you might as well leave the oil in the ground, somebody else we come along and pay more for it later,” Holbrook said.
Because North Dakota put nearly 30 percent of the revenue they collected from oil taxes into their rainy day fund, today they have 3.3 billion dollars in savings despite being one third of Oklahoma’s population. Oklahoma started 2016 with only 250 million dollars in savings for the entire state.
“Oil does this. It goes up and down. So when it’s good you better be getting money, you better be building roads, you better be investing in your schools like all the other oil states are doing when oil is high, ” Holbrook said.
Holbrook said he would cast his vote in favor of state question 779, a one percent sales tax increase the revenue from which will go towards teacher pay and higher education, but is concerned that the state will view the increase in pay for teachers as “enough” for schools and not bother finding money to solve the other problems schools face. He noted that an increase in teacher pay would be great for teachers, but would not help schools which are still struggling independently. He was also concerned with the regressive nature of the sales tax and how it unfairly disadvantages the poor, leading to further poverty in rural Oklahoma.
Holbrook is hopeful that so many Oklahoma teachers are on the ballot to join the Oklahoma legislature this year because it could mean that legislation for schools might be written so that schools can successfully implement them.
“Everybody talks about how bad Oklahoma education is, but what they are doing is confusing money with performance,” Holbrook said. “We may be dropping to number 50 funded in the nation … I think we are going to pass Mississippi this year. Mississippi, poorest state in the union, is going to fund their schools better than Oklahoma does.”
“But Oklahoma schools never perform at number 50,” Holbrook argued. “On ACT scores we’re scoring 27th in the nation.”
“We’re poorest funded, but we’re not poorest performing. A little bit better investment would go a long way.”
Inola Public Schools
In Inola, Oklahoma the first bell to start the day is at 7:50 a.m. and students leave at 4:15 p.m. Inola, like other rural schools, has suffered from Oklahoma’s shrinking budget and growing population. Holbrook recounted, “My first year here I had 13 more teachers than I have now and I have 120 more students.”
He didn’t have to cut teachers like other districts have. “A lot of it we were able to manage by people retiring and we just didn’t replace them, so the schools that were taking the biggest hit were the high school and the middle school because I was trying to protect my elementary.”
Holbrook’s concern with the elementary school was that “you just cannot put 25-30 kids into a first grade classroom … you’ve got scraped knees, bloody noses, you have to zip coats, tie shoes, it’s so involved with those little guys.” In addition to managing young students, teachers are also tasked with enforcing memorization of reading and math basics. “If kids get behind in first, second or third [grades] they are going to be behind the whole way through.”
“Last year as everything started collapsing, and you could see it coming as early as July [of 2015], each month was getting worse,” Holbrook said. “Come September  we knew we were going to be cut mid-year.” Mid-year cuts are problematic because yearly teacher salary contracts have already been signed and will have to be paid in full regardless if the severity of the budget cut.
The first mid-year cut was three percent, followed by a four percent cut later. At the end of the year the district was told that HB1017 funds wouldn’t be available, and so another $35,000 were cut in June 2016.
“Last year total I lost around $300,000 [to budget cuts],” Holbrook said. “Coming into this year I knew I couldn’t do that twice.”
“Starting this year I’ve already lost around $100,000 dollars [in expected state funds],” he continued. These cuts took the form of removing the new textbook fund and reducing professional development.
Holbrook explained that, “total from November-December of last year to now, the school has lost $400,000. That’s 10 teachers, if you figure the average teacher costs the school district about $40,000 dollars. That’s what I would have to cut to match that.”
“That’s why it was terrible, you’re talking a disaster,” Holbrook argued.
Last year Inola Public Schools spent a little over 9 million dollars in total operating costs after cutting every “nonessential” piece. “When I say nonessential: You can survive with fewer janitors as long as everybody pitches in and cleans up a little bit” Holbrook said. Inola dropped from 12 janitors in the 2015-2016 school year to 4 this year. They had to keep at least one per building in order to keep cafeterias and bathrooms up to code.
They also cut cafeteria workers and outsourced their cafeteria to a service that can run the kitchens more cost-effectively. The service did take on a few of the workers that had already been at the school, but those who chose to transfer to working for that service took a pay reduction and work fewer hours. “We saved $50,000 dollars, but it wasn’t a choice. I had to do it. Some of those ladies had been here for 20 years,” Holbrook said. Bus drivers lost 20 percent of their pay as well because they lost one day of work per week.
People have suggested the option of Inola cutting sports. However, Holbrook had already done the math and for their school he found they would actually end up losing more money as a result. “At a smaller school [cutting sports would work], but the difference is this: when we have a ballgame we have so many people come and pay gate and concessions. We buy all our uniforms, we pay for the refs, we pay for getting the gym floors redone out of that fund.”
“Almost everything we do athletically we pay for out of non-school funds,” Holbrook said. The sports-related expense that comes from school funds is that coaches are paid a stipend of about $2,500 a year. “If I quit basketball I’d save about $20,000, but the minute I don’t have that sport, kids are immediately eligible to transfer around to any district that still offers it. At $3,000 a kid, if 10 kids left this school to go to Choteau or Wagoner or Verdigris or Claremore I would lose $30,000 in state aid.”
“We’re looking at everything you can do besides cutting teachers,” Holbrook explained, but when it comes to staff layoffs “there’s a point at which you can’t go any lower.”
“We’re not the poorest state in the union, but the way they’re cutting us is unbelievable,” he lamented.
Holbrook wasn’t concerned about how the four day week would affect high school kids. For high school students, learning how to write papers, how to do research, how to express oneself and how to develop critical thinking skills doesn’t require the same rigorous instruction elementary school requires. When looking at the $400,000 shortage for this year Holbrook was faced with the decision to either cut teachers, all of whom would have to be cut from the elementary school because the upper schools are both operating with bare-bones faculty, or find an alternative solution.
In an interview with CBS he was asked if he thought the four day school week was the best choice. His reply was, “We aren’t funded in Oklahoma to make the best choices.”
“We’ve got two horrible decisions to make, which one of these is going to be the worst decision? In my mind it would be stuffing 30 first grade kids into a classroom.”
“Instead of firing four or five teachers we took 20 percent of the pay away from all of my support people. It made me sick, but the other side of that is going to be, again, 30 kids in a classroom,” Holbrook continued.
Inola Schools was able to announce their plan for the four day school year in January, giving bus drivers, janitors, maintenance workers and especially parents eight months to make arrangements. Many schools throughout Oklahoma were not quite as prepared and went to the four day week right before the start of the school year.
Oklahoma are looking at another potential budget cut at the start of the 2017-2018 school year. State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister has avidly advocated against the four day school week, saying “there are other things we should do before we start eliminating blocks of instruction time.”
Hofmeister voiced her concerns in an interview with NewsOn6 saying “I don’t think we will see momentum academically continue to move forward.” She has also discussed forcing schools to conform to a five day week.
Holbrook disagrees with Hofmeister, saying that if he is forced to rehire all of those employees while also facing further budget cuts, the money to do that will have to come directly from firing teachers and increasing class sizes. “I’m not against going back to the five day as soon as I get enough money to actually do it.”
Holbrook and the Inola Board of Education spent months doing research before deciding on the four day week. They looked at 100 rural schools that went to the four day week about 12 years ago because of a similar economic downturn. When the economy came back up most of those schools stayed with the four day schedule, and started conducting internal research about the school week. The schools found that in the worst case scenarios test scores between the five day and four day remained the same, and in most cases the test scores were better in the four day week. The noteworthy correlations to test scores were an increase in attendance because people would schedule any appointments for their free weekday, and a decrease in discipline issues.
“Anybody who is saying they don’t like the four day week because it is bad for kids, well that’s your opinion, but it’s not based on research,” Holbrook said.
“If our scores remain the same this year or are better, I’m going to say I made the right decision.”
Elementary school teachers have reported that students don’t seem to notice the extra length of the day because teachers frontload the core classes in the first half of the day, and then do their hands-on classes and activities in the afternoon when the student’s focus would otherwise be distracted.
Holbrook noted that he had only had a handful of complaints from parents about what they were supposed to do with their child on Mondays but most parents he talked to understood the need for their children to get a good education and appreciated Holbrook’s willingness to prioritize it.
Inola teachers and students also expressed their thoughts about the four day week. First grade teachers Kelli Davis, Shelly Younger, Susan Havens, Kristy Shafer and Quetta Spurlock shared a mostly positive view of the four day week. They appreciated having an extra day on the weekend to prepare lessons for the week and thought students were doing well with the condensed lessons.
However some were concerned with how the longer days affect the student’s’ home life as they balance homework and sports. There were also concerns about where the young children were and what they were doing on their day off.
Middle school special education teacher Shawna Bankes has noticed that the longer classes work well for students in math classes, but shared concern about the lack of new textbooks.
High school history teacher Trudy Stumpff noted that having Monday off was really nice, but coming back to school on Tuesday was made all the more difficult. She was also concerned about condensing the same amount of information from five days of class into 4 classes that are only lengthened by five minutes each.
For a handful of the high school students that I got to talk to, they really enjoyed the four day week. Students said they liked have a full hour of class time to work on assignments instead of the 55 minutes they used to have and having a longer weekend to sleep, work on homework, and be able to attend doctor’s appointments without skipping class.
The high school Vice Principal Heather Ellis said “I worry about getting to the goals we need to get to in classrooms,” because students and teachers only have a few more minutes each day to cover the material. She also noted that in the first month of school there was an increase in discipline issues relative to previous years, but those have gone down since.