Responding to a furious outcry from St. Paul parents, the city's public schools superintendent and mayor apologized Tuesday for the botched handling of Monday's snowstorm that left hundreds of kids stranded at their schools — some as late as 11 p.m. — while parents were left in the dark.
"We deeply regret what happened last night," Mayor Melvin Carter said as he stood alongside Superintendent Joe Gothard at a news conference in the school district's headquarters.
Rather than close schools, Gothard kept them open, and the snow piled up Monday, leading to a chaotic and halting effort to get students home that lasted late into the night.
The resulting social media uproar that carried over into Tuesday made it clear that too many parents had been made to panic, checking a school district bus app that in many cases was useless, with some waiting hours for the last of the stranded — 300 kids from preschool through grade eight — to be bused home between 10 p.m. and midnight. One group of 11 kids from Wellstone Elementary on the North End had to get a ride home from police officers.
In the Highland Park neighborhood, Jodi Meerovich was happy to see one daughter arrive home safely and just 10 minutes late. But then the wait began for her first-grader. After receiving a call from another Capitol Hill Magnet School parent wondering where their children were, Meerovich pulled up a Facebook page to learn that the bus had been in an accident. It was minor, but she had no way of knowing that at the moment, so it was freak-out time.
"Is she safe? Is she warm?" she recalled thinking.
Daughter Avery finally made it home about 7 p.m. All the while, Meerovich received no word from the district about her child, and was being falsely told by the district's app that the bus was on time.
"Where was the communication? That was the biggest frustration," Meerovich said. "To have her on that bus three additional hours was crazy. She was scared."
At John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary School on the East Side, a bus with special-education students got stuck, and Korrinna Maddix, the mother of an 8-year-old student, received word of it from an employee about 3:50 p.m. But it wasn't until about 9:15 p.m., after Maddix had placed a call and then learned nearly an hour later that her son and other students were being transferred to an SUV, that her son finally got home.
"That's just not acceptable. We couldn't find our kids, and nobody was giving us any accountability," Maddix said. "It was just really stressful, and I feel like it was handled very poorly."
Tom Burr, the district's transportation director, said that it took until about 10 p.m. for the district to finish busing about 50 to 75 special-needs kids.
About 10 a.m. Monday, the district alerted parents that it was putting its "winter weather plan" in effect — meaning the first of three tiers of busing would start a half-hour early. Burr said that went relatively well, but by 3 p.m., "It was a disaster — the city was locked up solid."
Gothard said his decision earlier that morning to keep the district open came in consultation with others.
It was based on information that he said indicated the district could get kids home safely. Knowing what he knows now, "We likely would have made a different decision," he said.
To parents who were put through the anxiety of bus delays and wondering where their children were, he said: "It breaks my heart that this happened."
As the storm worsened, the district asked the city for help. Carter visited Farnsworth and Wellstone elementary schools to help shovel out buses stuck in the snow, and public works sent plows to help where possible.
Already, public works had deployed nearly every snowplow it had, Director Kathy Lantry said, even though typically a few plows stay behind in case one breaks down. Eighty plow drivers worked into the night to clear city streets.
"It is an incredibly complex operation," Lantry said. "Basically, it's all hands on deck."
At the joint news conference Tuesday, Carter said that he and Gothard will continue to work together to figure out how city and district staff can improve their response to weather events. Carter also thanked the snowplow drivers, police officers, firefighters and neighbors who helped get stranded schoolchildren home Monday night.
Parents and community members delivered food to schools, and teachers and staff members stayed with kids, too.
"There are many lessons to be learned from yesterday, but I am proud of the way the spirit of this city shined bright last night," Carter said.
Minneapolis Public Schools, too, said that it was "very sorry" for transportation delays and the difficulties that students, families and staff encountered while trying to navigate slippery roads.
Both districts canceled classes Tuesday, as did many other school districts, including Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, Bloomington, Fridley, Robbinsdale, and Hastings.
"We hope you know that our students' and staff's safety is and always will be our first concern on days like these," the Minneapolis district tweeted. "We apologize when it didn't feel that way and we look forward to getting a fresh start on the week on Wednesday."
Back in St. Paul, Angela Eder, an East Side parent whose daughter attends L'Etoile du Nord French Immersion School, said she sent her fifth-grader to school Monday trusting that the district would make the right decisions about whether to keep schools open when the weather worsened. After it became apparent that kids would need to be picked up, she called the district's transportation line and an ombudsman. She never got an answer, she said.
Now, Eder said, she plans to move her daughter to the Stillwater district, where her oldest child attends school.