Making the call no snow day for area superintendents
By Emily McFarlan Miller email@example.com March 3, 2013 4:28PM
Crossing guard Barbara McHughes watches the last bus depart from Channing Elementary School during a snowstorm Tuesday in Elgin. February 26, 2013 | Michael Smart~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 5, 2013 6:05AM
Community Unit School District 300 Superintendent Michael Bregy was discussing what characteristics staff would like to see in their next principal at noon Tuesday at Hampshire High School when he glanced outside the conference room window and saw it.
“My heart dropped to my feet because the last information I had at 9:30 was the snow will start at 3 o’clock,” Bregy said. “My heart dropped to my feet because I knew it was too late to do anything.”
In a district the size of District 300 — 118 square miles spanning 15 communities — decisions to call off school early must be made by 9:30 a.m.; and to cancel it completely, the decision must be reached by about 5:30 a.m.
Those decisions impact the lives of hundreds of students and parents and staff. The wrong decision can be an inconvenience to parents at best — and, at worst, have dangerous consequences, putting buses and teenage drivers on slick streets.
And that’s why, superintendents of area school districts shared candidly, snow day decisions can be some of the hardest they make.
“It is the type of decision where, before you even make it, you know that there are going to be some people unhappy, and they’re unhappy because you’re erring on the side of safety, or it’s a huge inconvenience for parents, and it’s everything in between,” Bregy said.
“I don’t think people even can understand how much this kind of decision-making affects superintendents. There’s no sleeping the night before a winter storm is to come in.”
A photo shows Dr. Evil and his coterie of bad guys from the Austin Powers films laughing maniacally, as bad guys are wont to do. It was circulating Tuesday on Twitter with the caption, “D303 when they see all the other districts closing from snow.”
Donald Schlomann, superintendent of St. Charles Community Unit School District 303, had seen that tweet, he said.
Schlomann has been at the head of the school district for 11 years. And in that time, he said, he’s gotten “this reputation, because I grew up in northern Wisconsin, for having school no matter what.”
“But at the same time, people forget in June they had a day off in January. You do have to make up those days,” he said.
On a snowy morning like a recent Friday, Schlomann said, his day starts at 4 a.m., driving roads to gauge conditions and trying to gather as much information as possible from the county and other resources.
Others, such as Elgin School District U46 Superintendent Jose Torres, said they rely heavily on their transportation staffs to determine whether the roads are safe for buses. His transportation director, Andy Martin, will start driving roads as early as 1 or 2 a.m., Torres said. That’s because, like District 300, the Elgin district spans 90 square miles, and conditions in rural Wayne can be very different from those in Elgin, the city in the suburbs.
He loses sleep because he’s up early, making that call, he said. Otherwise, Torres said, “Our process in U46 has given us confidence.”
Superintendents try to come to a snow day decision around 5 a.m., Schlomann said. That way, the district can alert the community if school is canceled by 5:30 a.m. so working parents can make arrangements for child care, he said.
But, he said, “That’s in a perfect world, and it doesn’t always work that way.”
Much harder to make are the decisions to cancel school because of cold temperatures, Torres said. In U46, that happens when temperatures are so low that students could catch frostbite just from five minutes waiting outside, he said.
So are decisions to call off school early when the morning starts out clear and snow begins to fall midday, like last Tuesday, superintendents agreed.
That’s partly because of the prescience it requires of superintendents, according to Bregy. For instance, forecasts early Tuesday morning had said snow would move into the area at about 3 p.m., he said. It started at about 11 a.m.
“Even the people who are trained in science and weather — they cannot make an accurate prediction. So how can you expect the superintendent to make an accurate weather prediction?” Bregy said.
That’s also because many districts, such as 300 and 303, run buses in multiple tiers to be as efficient as possible, superintendents said. The same bus will run several routes throughout the day as different grade levels dismiss at different times.
In a district the size of Burlington-based Central Community Unit School District 301, Superintendent Todd Stirn noted he was able to decide by noon last Tuesday to dismiss high schools about 20 minutes early.
High school and even middle school students likely can get into their homes if dropped off early by buses, he reasoned. But there’s no guarantee anyone will be home to meet an elementary student, he said.
An early high school dismissal would give buses time to be back at elementary schools at their normal dismissal time, he said.
“And the plan actually worked,” Stirn said.
Barrington School District 220 also dismissed some schools early Tuesday in addition to canceling after-school activities. By about 12:30 p.m., U46, District 300, District 301 and Huntley Consolidated School District 158 decided to cancel after-school activities as well.
District 300 was alone among area districts to call off school on Feb. 22, a decision Bregy made at about 6:30 p.m. the day before as forecasts called for up to eight inches of snow blanketing the Fox Valley by morning. That storm fizzled out overnight, however, dropping only about two to three inches on the area.
Bregy said he only received about eight negative emails and 12 to 15 positive ones regarding that decision — “so not a lot.”
“I thought that I would receive more than I did,” he said.
“Nobody wants to make a bad decision, and, really, I never want to create a situation where families have to scramble at the last minute. But the unpredictability of our weather and the way we run our transportation system for 16,000 kids — it’s difficult. It’s certainly not a decision I make lightly.”
It’s a decision he didn’t understand, he said, even two years ago, when he had the office next door to previous District 300 Superintendent Kenneth Arndt.
But it’s a decision that must be made for communities as diverse as Carpentersville and Hampshire, for students from preschoolers on buses to high school drivers, for roads that range from highways to rural routes. That’s 42,000 lives — students and parents and staff — impacted by one decision, he said.
And if there’s one thing that decision comes down to, superintendents agreed, that’s the safety of their students. And that responsibility rests on them, they said.
“As superintendents, we have to make the most informed decision we can with the information we have,” Stirn said.