District leaders' toughest call: Is it a snow day?

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 26, 2007 - 9:04 PM

Faulty forecasts and a lack of rules make it hard for superintendents to decide when to disrupt routines in class and at home.

The first snow of the year brings no joy for Minnesota school superintendents.

It's a reminder that, at some point during the winter months, they'll probably be faced with a decision on whether to call a "snow day," canceling classes that can disrupt the learning schedules and home routines of thousands of students.

That's a decision that superintendents say ranks among the toughest they will ever make.

"Ever since I've been a superintendent, snow hasn't been fun anymore," said Don Helmstetter, superintendent of Spring Lake Park Schools.

There are no hard and fast rules governing when to call snow days.

"It's not like if 6.3 inches of snow falls, we automatically close or stay open," said John Currie, superintendent of Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan schools.

Twin Cities superintendents and other school officials say their students' safety and the ability of the school buses to get to the schools are paramount factors.

They must also take into account what the forecast calls for. Most long-term superintendents can tell stories about calling off school based on a faulty forecast.

"We've called off school in the midst of a blizzard at 5:30 in the morning, and at 8:30 a.m. or 9 a.m. the majority of the storm has gone through and the sun has come out," said Chuck Holden, director of administrative services for Anoka-Hennepin schools.

Erring on the side of safety doesn't necessarily mean canceling classes.

"Far and away the safest thing to do is have school," Currie said. "When we don't have school, there are literally thousands of students home and unsupervised all day."

Last winter, metro area schools shut down March 2, in the wake of a big snowstorm that signaled its intentions the evening before, and didn't let up as the night wore on. As superintendents discovered the snowplows weren't even going out, they made what most considered to be an easy call. That was the only snow day superintendents recall from last school year. Most remember one from the 2005-06 school year, too.

Helmstetter estimates he's averaged about one snow day a year over the 11 years he's been Spring Lake Park's top educator. Holden figures only six or seven times over the 20 years he's been helping to make snow-day decisions in Anoka-Hennepin.

Big-city districts such as Minneapolis have the highest bar for calling snow days, many school officials say. That, said district spokesman Ross Bennett, could be because of the district's urban compactness, which makes clearing the streets easier than in districts with far-flung rural neighborhoods. Bennett said he thinks last winter's March school closing was the first for the district in three years.

On occasion, the state's top snow-day arbiter takes the decision out of superintendents' hands.

A bitter-cold day

Arne Carlson called off school three times for weather-related reasons when he was governor. Technically, those days, called in 1994, 1996 and 1997, weren't snow days; he called off school statewide on all three occasions because of bitter cold and severe windchills.

When a big snowstorm arrives, or perhaps even before, if it's late at night, superintendents consult with their transportation people and neighboring superintendents. As the snow comes down, they talk to municipalities to find out whether the snowplows are out and if the streets are clear.

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