Cancel the three-day college weekend dreams.

An investigation into the cost-saving potential of a four-day school week at the University of Montana found it wouldn't save much money, university administrators said Wednesday. Although initial estimates predicted a $450,000 annual savings, the real drop in utility bills would only be about $85,000.

"That may have been a real quick, back-of-the-envelope calculation," College of Arts and Sciences Dean Chris Comer said of the hoped-for spending reduction. "We found there would indeed be savings, but the big figure didn't bear out."

UM President George Dennison suggested moving to a four-day week in January as an option in the university's effort to trim $3.6 million from its annual budget. The cuts came in response to impending loss of federal stimulus dollars and state funding reductions.

Comer and UM Associate Vice President for Administration and Finance Rosi Keller researched the question with public forums, e-mail surveys, department interviews and conversations with other institutions that had tried the idea. That included talks with 17 other colleges that had either implemented the four-day week or studied doing so.

Their committee also explored how much the Missoula campus spends on electricity and natural gas to power its operations. That's where the savings potential really started to unravel, Comer said.

"If you were to go to a four-day schedule, the fifth day wouldn't be a closure," he said. "It would be like a Saturday, where research labs and dorms and other essential services would go on."

Also on the downside, campus faculty argued the four-day week would hurt the quality of their teaching and research efforts.

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The surveys found students and campus staff workers like the idea, but more for its social aspects. Employees in particular liked the possibility of more flexible work schedules and longer weekends, Comer said.

So while the research committee is not recommending a year-round four-day week, it has proposed a pilot project for the summer of 2011. Comer said that is expected to save about $18,000 in utility costs, but could produce other benefits in employee morale.

Four-day weeks have seen more success in Montana's K-12 schools. For example, the Victor Public School System is in its fourth year on a four-day schedule. Superintendent Orville Getz said it's met its goals.

"It's saved money and given us an opportunity to do something different," Getz said. One benefit has been that teachers now gather for four-hour work sessions every Friday that have proved very productive.

But the cost savings have come mostly from reduced bus transportation and cafeteria expenses - two line items a university campus wouldn't feel as directly. Getz said there were some utility savings, too, but the school's role as an all-week community center meant it couldn't leave the heat and lights off much.

"You've got to go with the type of situation that's going to help your unit," Getz said. "Sometimes it just doesn't work."

Reporter Rob Chaney can be reached at 523-5382 or at rchaney@missoulian.com.

 

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