Guest Column

One Memorable Snow Day Call

by LINTON DECK

The decision to open or close schools when there is a forecast of snow is a no-win situation. My first personal involvement in making the tough call dates back to 1970 when I was an assistant superintendent in a large city-county consolidated school system in Tennessee.

The district’s superintendent had died unexpectedly in early January. The board of education, instead of naming an interim superintendent, directed the eight assistant superintendents to operate the school system as an executive team of equals. We soon found ourselves in interminable meetings making decisions collaboratively on all sorts of operational matters. The meetings became a form of organizational dysfunction.

At the end of January, the executive team faced its first big crisis. A major blizzard hit the community.

The school system serves an area of more than 500 square miles with mountains in the north, a navigable river through the central city, and rolling hills and a level plain in the south. The district includes several suburban towns and unincorporated farm villages. Student transportation is a logistical challenge.

Mounting Pressure
Expecting heavy snowfall, the executive team closed the schools. At least a foot of snow fell throughout the county — nearly three feet in higher elevations. Neither the school system nor county government had snow-removal equipment to cope with the storm. The entire community essentially shut down for two or three days.

Then temperatures rose a bit during the day and thawing began, but at sunset temperatures dropped and moisture from daytime thaws refroze into dangerous black ice. Vehicles skidded and crashed all over the community. Then more snow fell, increasing the danger.

Faced with ice and frozen snow, the executive team kept the schools closed. Icy conditions continued in much of the county, but some areas cleared up. By the fifth day, segments of the community were calling for the schools to reopen.

Board members and the executive team fielded a plethora of calls demanding school resume. The pressure mounted, in spite of dangerous conditions. News media quoted sources in the police department saying schools were closed unnecessarily. Members of the county governing council demanded the schools reopen. Hour by hour the criticism grew.

Some roads were clear, but in the northern part of the county, snow and black ice lingered. Two locations reported sleet. School transportation personnel drove all over the county and found many situations too risky to put buses on the roads.

On the ninth day after the storm, the media quoted more police sources insisting roads were safe, and criticism moved up to a communal roar.

Harrowing Journey
The executive team met again and again, trying to balance student safety issues with the status of roads. Transportation crews continued to monitor conditions, and some modifications of bus routes were worked out. Finally, on the 11th morning after the blizzard, the team decided road conditions were safe enough to reopen schools.

That morning, in the north county, a veteran school bus driver picked up students on her usual route for a high school and nearby junior high. She delivered the high school students, and with a dozen students still on the bus, started toward the junior high. About halfway there, the route turned off a main traffic artery onto a two-block-long residential street going down a steep hill. Houses were on the left side of the street and an empty field was on the right.

As she turned onto the side street, the driver realized the entire hill was covered with black ice. The big yellow vehicle began to slide. She shifted to lowest gear and carefully pumped the brakes, but the bus kept sliding. She pulled up the emergency brake. The bus continued to slide.

Quickly the driver directed the 12 riders to open the rear emergency door and jump carefully to the surface of the street. As soon as the kids were out the door, she pulled the steering wheel as far to the right as she could and ran for the back door herself. She jumped to the ground just as the bus left the icy surface of the street, jumped across the roadside ditch and bounced into the empty field.

Cops to the Rescue
Fortunately, neither the driver nor any student was injured. She carefully made her way to the nearest house and telephoned the school transportation center. The dispatcher radioed another bus to pick up the 12 students, and a second radio message sent a wrecker to retrieve the bus.

Police radio monitors overheard the two messages, and a police cruiser was dispatched to the site. In a few minutes, with its siren blaring, the police car with two officers arrived at the intersection where the bus had turned. As the officer driving turned onto the side street, the patrol car began sliding and could not stop. The driver turned the steering wheel hard to the right and the two police officers bailed out of the car. The cruiser slid into the roadside ditch, bounced across it and smashed into the school bus in the field.

One officer sustained a badly injured ankle, and the cruiser suffered major damage from crashing into the school bus. The bus had minor damage except at the point of impact by the police vehicle.

There were a few minor accidents elsewhere that morning involving students driving to school, and two other school buses skidded on ice, but the bus fleet delivered kids to and from school without other problems. A few student walkers had minor injuries from falls on ice or snow, but the major damage of the day was the police car and the injured officer.

Television stations got film footage of the police car and the bus, and the accident was big news for a couple of days. The news media celebrated the bus driver as the heroine she truly was.

A month later a storm closed the schools again for a few days. The community made no complaint, and there was no criticism from any source in local government or the media in the aftermath.

Linton Deck, a former superintendent in three states, is an AASA life member in Asheville, N.C. E-mail: ldeck@bellsouth.net