June 19, 2002 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

ELGIN — Does a school district benefit when it switches to a four-day school week?

This question is being debated in Elgin, where the school board is studying the possibility of reducing the school week from 4.5 to four days.

It is a complicated, multi-sided issue. However, it essentially has come down to one question: Will the estimated cost savings of about $25,000 a year justify a cutback in teacher access time for students?

The Elgin district is presently on a 4.5-day school week. Students attend Mondays through Thursdays. On Fridays they are dismissed at noon. However, teachers must stay at school until 3 p.m. on most Fridays so that students can seek extra help. The teacher access time has been used extensively by high school students, Superintendent Kerma Berry said.

Between 30 and 50 students are at the school on many Friday afternoons, Berry said. The number is highest on the Fridays when Elgin's sports teams have home games.

Those who do not want to see the teacher access time sacrificed include parent Marc Stauffer. He said teacher access time has proven valuable to his children. He is worried that losing it might hurt the quality of education.

Stauffer believes it is critical that Elgin maintain a quality school system if it is to attract new businesses.

"We need the shining advantage of academics,'' he said.

Stauffer, a member of the Elgin City Council, said that when representatives of businesses ask about Elgin, the quality of its schools is often their first question.

Four-day school weeks do not reduce the number of hours that students are in class because the school days are extended.

Despite the reduction in days that students are in class, there is no evidence that indicates that switching to a four-day school week has an impact on academic achievement, school board member Bud Scoubes said.

The Elgin district has not determined exactly how much money would be saved by switching to a four-day week. However, surveys of districts of comparable size indicate that Elgin would probably save between $20,000 and $25,000 a year. The district would save money through reduced busing and building operating costs.

This is not enough to hire an additional full-time teacher but it would help the district deal with a difficult budget situation, officials said. The school board had to cut four full-time teachers last month because of a budget shortfall caused by declining enrollment.

Elgin's teachers and staff have received limited pay increases because of the budget problems. The teachers and staff received a 1 percent base pay increase in 2000-01 and no base increase in 2001-02.

Interest has been expressed in a four-day week because it would be one way for the school board to give teachers more compensation in lieu of a salary increase by allowing them to have Fridays off.

During negotiations for their 2001-02 contract, the teachers asked that the school board study a four-day week. The contract agreement stated that the school district's site committee would look into the issue and then make a recommendation to the board.

The site committee conducted a public survey that was led by Nanette Winkelman, chairwoman of Elgin's site council

Winkelman sent out surveys to several hundred Elgin residents but only about 30 returned them. Eleven people said they would support a four-day week and seven said they opposed it. The others respondents had neutral feelings about the issue.

The school board was concerned about the lack of public response so it conducted a community forum Monday to get more input. It was attended by about 20 people.

"We are frustrated by the lack of participation,'' Scoubes said.

Unless more interest is shown, it is unlikely that the school board will continue looking into switching to a four-day week, Scoubes said.