Independence Board of Education members who are asking for the public’s trust regarding a proposed switch to a four-day school week need to earn that trust through transparency — not through secrecy and refusal to actively engage with the public. While I am certain they have the best of intentions and a true desire to do the right thing, many current board members hide behind “policy” (and their raised dais) and rarely, if ever, question Superintendent Dale Herl’s decision-making publicly.
Independence, like many other districts in the nation, is in a tough spot when it comes to staffing and teacher retention. Herl has sold the school board on the idea that switching to a four-day week is the district’s last, best hope for remedying the issue, despite a dearth of solid facts to back that assertion. That change is on track to be approved by the board at next Tuesday’s school board meeting, according to the agenda posted Thursday, a little over 24 hours before the deadline for public requests to speak.
Many of the lauded advantages of the four-day week — more staff collaboration time, more time for teachers to spend with their families, and the suggestion that new teachers would move to the district — are simply said to be details still to be figured out, when the administration is pressed. Even those backed by quantifiable data are from districts with demographics very different from Independence’s (rural versus urban, at most tens of hundreds of students versus tens of thousands).
The district has created a website full of videos and positive commentaries about the four-day week, but they leave many reasonable questions unanswered. A survey sent to families via email was clearly crafted to elicit positive responses, but contained little information of substance about the implementation, and the responses still contained significant numbers of people against the change. Planning committees for the four-day-week formed by the district contained exactly nine parents — out of more than 13,000 families in the district.
A hastily-scheduled town hall was held, but was not listed on the district website until two days before the event. My little circle of parents watch the district’s official social media accounts closely, but saw only a couple of last minute-posts from board members on personal accounts to notify families about the meeting. Many queries submitted were silently skipped during the open question portion of the event. The district is not afraid to use robocalls and text messages to notify families of anything from road construction to COVID-19 vaccination clinics, but the only districtwide communications around the four-day week have been via email and last-minute website postings.
District families aren’t the only ones concerned about the change. A recent Facebook post about it garnered comments from multiple current and former district teachers suggesting that a four-day week was not the solution to the problem. Instead, suggested several commenters, treating school employees respectfully and fairly, being transparent with the community and creating a positive working environment would be far more effective at improving teacher retention. Several current teachers also expressed concerns about retaliation for having posted comments opposed to the plan in a public forum.
I am not wholly opposed to the concept of a four-day week. In fact, my family would be just fine either way, as I have two teenagers who are capable of getting themselves to and from activities and fifth-day clubs and field trips. There would certainly be advantages for us and many others. I believe that the district administration does truly believe they are doing the right thing, and it is likely that they have data that I, as a member of the general public, do not.
So why not share all of that information with us? If Dr. Herl and the board truly believe that a four-day-week is the right solution, why make this (and other) decisions with minimal community input? And why not put some accountability in place? Make the switch a three-year trial, with quantifiable metrics of success (and failure) to assess at the end.
Independence schools need to be accountable for changes that affect everyone in the district, and confident that those changes aren’t failing even more students than the current situation already is. And board members need to be more than yes-men on these kinds of massive transformations.
Justin Ferguson is a software engineer. He is the father of two Independence School District students and the spouse of a teacher who left the district last year.