A Superintendent’s Dreaded Decision

School closings due to snow and bad weather in the Midwest and along the East coast have occurred weekly this winter. While doing research at two high schools in Washington, D.C. in early December, sleet and rain mixed with snow closed schools in the city and surrounding counties. Winter storm Janus just a few days ago shut down schools from Boston through Washington, D.C.

Does closing schools harm student achievement? Probably not since most districts add “snow days” to the Spring calendar for every day schools are closed. One commentator even made the argument that closing schools helps students and their families. I have no opinion on the pundit’s point since I really do not know.

What I do know is that when I was Arlington (VA) superintendent for seven years (1974-1981), it was the one decision of many that I made that I dreaded. Over those years, I moved several elementary school principals for not improving academic achievement and a high school principal for inept leadership, survived teacher union votes of no confidence, consolidated seven schools–shutting them down permanently–and built a system of teacher professional development and accountability for student academic achievement.  Yet after all of those  consequential decisions, weather forecasts of snow between December and March scared me silly.

Why?

1. We lived in a weather zone where a change of a few degrees in temperature would turn a cold rain into sleet, hail, or inches of snow. Thus, we depended heavily on weather predictions and even ones within 24-hours generated by advanced computer models would often give a range of temperatures making a decision a nerve-wracking one.

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2. Closing down 35 schools for 15,000 students (in the 1970s) meant that their health and safety–too wet and cold outside for students to wait for buses, roads too slippery and dangerous for school buses, public transportation, and private cars to negotiate–were primary considerations in making a decision.

images-13. Because up to half of the school population came from families where single parents or both parents worked outside the home, closing down schools would mean that these parents would have to scramble to get child care for the day. many could not locate child care the last moment and parents had to skip work or deal with kids being taken care of (or not). This factor also weighed heavily in any decision I made.

4. The superintendent makes the decision. In the first year of my superintendency, the procedure was for the assistant superintendent in charge of transportation, buildings and grounds calling me during the early evening and give me the forecast for the next day. He would then make a recommendation, based on some of his lieutenants being out on the streets seeing the conditions first-hand,  for keeping the schools open or closing them. I was tempted a few times to have him make the decision but resisted that temptation since any mistakes would fall on me as the superintendent, not him. Better, I felt, that I make the decision and take the heat should the decision go awry. And some did.

4. Because of the dicey weather zone we lived in, it was possible to close schools and end up with snow turning to rain and having a wet day rather than 5-10 inches of snow. Or worse yet, an unexpected clearing up of bad weather and at 1 PM in the afternoon the sun is shining. That happened to me once in seven years and the comments I got then, well, I do not want to pass them along.

5. Our two daughters were in the public schools at the time and it doesn’t take a leap of imagination to hear that their friends called them when bad weather was predicted for the area and asked whether I would be closing the schools tomorrow.  Sometimes, an unexpected weather front would move in during the school day and we had to decide to close school early. Those decisions would be easier than closing schools the next day because all you had to do was look outside and see for yourself.

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For these and many other reasons, I dreaded making decisions about keeping schools open or shutting them down. But I did. And the reason is that such a decision is a human judgment not one driven by an algorithm. Sure, human judgments are flawed just as surely as the weighted factors that go into an algorithm.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “A Superintendent’s Dreaded Decision

  1. Jeff Bowen

    I couldn’t agree more! My wife and I, as superintendents of adjoining districts in lake-effect-snow land, sometimes disagreed at 4:30 a.m. about closing our schools in snowy weather. Now there’s a factor to add to the list. In any case, what Larry Lezotte used to say is really true: the classic comment on a superintenden’s headstone is this:He knew when to close school.”

  2. Donald E

    I always dreaded the decision. Our procedure was similar to yours and I would get the call from the transportation supervisor at 5 am and had to predict the weather for the day…we had an electronic, public TV and radio system so had to log in and inform the media and activate the staff phone trees no later than 6am. Of course, as you know, when the sun emerged and the temp went up to 60 degrees at 11 am the phone calls questioning my basic intelligence and parenthood would come flooding in. Of course on the mornings when we cancelled school and our neighboring districts did not….after a couple of hours of nervous waiting…we looked like wizards.

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