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Missoula's Target Range School continues deliberation on four day school week

Target Range School Inside
Posted at 4:13 PM, Mar 16, 2023
and last updated 2023-03-17 10:25:53-04

MISSOULA - The Target Range School District announced earlier this year it was considering a move to a four-day school week for the 2023-2024 school year in order to retain and recruit teachers.

Target Range administration planned to vote on this decision on March 13, 2023.

However, after receiving negative feedback from parents, the board decided instead on working to pass a levy to raise money for higher salaries.

They hope better pay will encourage just as much teacher retention.

“I met with over 100 parents at small group sessions at the end of February, early March, and we got a lot of feedback that for many parents, this will be very difficult for them,” said Target Range School Superintendent, Dr. Heather Davis Schmidt. “And I understand why it will be very difficult for them from a childcare perspective mostly.”

Instead of voting on a four-day week, the board voted on the amount of two different levies Monday night.

One is a general fund request, where 85-90% would go towards teacher salaries. The second request is for a technology fund that would be used to update school technology for the coming years.

Currently, the majority of the technology at Target Range is funded by COVID-19 grants, which will run out soon.

Board members expressed that both the general fund levy and the technology levy were important for the school and teacher retention.

However, educational levies rarely pass at Target Range and haven’t for several years.

In light of this, the board decided it will only run the general fund levy in hopes it will have a greater chance with it being the only levy on the ballot.

The levy amount was, after great deliberation, set at $375,000. This would mean that families with a home valued at $100,000 would pay an extra $3.15 in property taxes per month.

“I am trying to remain positive, we haven’t had a lot of luck with levies in the past, but I really feel like our community is understanding better the challenges that we’re facing, and I think we’re asking for something that’s very reasonable for our community,” Davis Schmidt says.

Teachers at Target Range have several reasons for wanting a four-day week and explained their struggles in a statement presented at the board meeting.

They said they no longer feel the support of the community or parents, writing, "We continue to feel the “us vs. them” or “school vs. community” that began after COVID."

According to EdWeek and Merrimack College, only about 12% of teachers are satisfied with their job, a statistic Davis Schmidt addresses.

“Ask yourself why, why is teacher job satisfaction so low?" she says. "I think there’s a lot of reasons for that, and a big piece of that is the value and respect for educators has declined and has declined significantly in the last decade.”

Target Range is understaffed, meaning teachers are taking on much more than they signed up for. A shorter work week would provide them that extra time and support, according to Davis Schmidt.

“It’s an opportunity to value and respect our teachers,” she says. “The fact that right now they aren’t getting prep time, they aren’t even getting lunchtime, means they are working six days a week. So if there’s a way that we can value and respect them by giving them time on Fridays to collaborate with one another, to do professional development, and prepare for the following week, so that they can do a better job for their students– that’s what they want most.”

For every reason educators have for the change, it seems parents have a reason against it.

For some families, moving to a four-day week would mean they would need to move to a different district, uprooting their child from the school community they are accustomed to.

In a survey taken from the parent discussion sessions, Target Range found that 31% of parents were strongly against a shorter week.

Parents say they've been left with several questions regarding the logistics of the shorter week.

Some worry that a longer day will negatively affect the kids' education and nighttime routine.

One parent writes, "I will never see my kids on weekdays, and when I do they will be fried and it will be dinner and bed to do it all over again. These hours drive full-grown adults insane."

For many, Friday childcare is the biggest concern.

Additionally, some students rely on school lunches for food, and will no longer have that option five days a week.

Parents of older children cite that the transition back to five-day weeks when they graduate to high school could be stressful.

Parents saw a levy as a better alternative to changing the school week, writing “Overall I think [the four-day week] is a bad plan, not holding up the deal with the community it is designed to support, other funding avenues should be pursued or additional levy writing/campaigning.”

Another parent wrote, “Why does this seem like the only answer to the unhappiness of staff.”

A levy, however, wasn’t a new idea, as it is always something Target Range considers, according to Davis Schmidt.

But, knowing the history of success for levies in Target Range, the school was looking for creative solutions.

“I just understand that this community has not passed a levy in a long time, so we need to think of alternatives in case it doesn’t happen,” Davis Schmidt says. “And we can’t wait until May, we can’t wait until the levy vote to make these kinds of decisions and start moving forward with these kinds of discussions.”

The levy will now be voted on May 2, and if it does not pass, the board will reconsider a four-day week. With either solution, Target Range is still left with possibilities for teacher retention issues.

A four-day week is not a solution to budget problems, so while teachers will have more time, they will still be underpaid.

“Our starting range for teachers at Target Range is just over $36,000 a year. And that’s not a livable wage in a community with a median home value of $600,000,” Davis Schmidt told MTN News.

And if the levy does pass, teachers will still have an unmanageable workload.

“Down the road, there still may be a need to explore a four-day school week, or other options if we can’t stabilize our staff recruitment and retention efforts,” Davis Schmidt says.

Another key issue parents have with this switch is Davis Schmidt’s decision to leave Target Range this year.

She announced her resignation shortly before announcing the possible change to four days.

Parents are concerned about changing the school schedule drastically while also changing administration, and worry that it may deter possible candidates.

“I’ve known that I was going to leave, but I’m also really dedicated to the community, and I feel that I’m really dedicated to the school. I will do everything I can to support the staff at this school so that they can support the students at this school until the day I leave,” Davis Schmidt says in response.

Overall, in order to maintain Target Range educational standards and prevent more teacher resignations, Davis Schmidt says something needs to change to better support their educators.

“Our teachers here at Target Range are exceptional. They will do anything and everything — bend over backwards to support the needs of students, and I don’t think all of our families realize that or recognize that,” she says. “I have not heard any other creative solutions that will really help us at this point, but I encourage the community to keep thinking about them and sharing their ideas.”