Guest Column

Snow Days and the Weather Channel

by Randall A. Zitterkopf

In my 26 years as a school administrator, the one question I probably answer most often is “Are we having school today?” — that is, when the ominous snow clouds roll in from Canada, which can happen quite often when you live in South Dakota.

My school district has a policy, not uncommon, that gives me as superintendent the authority to call off school because of the weather. At this time of year, we’re talking snow — and lots of it — plus wind chill that will freeze your rear end. You know the picture. I’ve tried to pay others to take this authority from me, but I haven’t had any takers yet.

This brings me to the Weather Channel, one of the mediums I consult when I am faced with a school-closing decision. I personally don’t like the Weather Channel all that much. The light jazz music that plays as the weather maps appear and information scrolls across the bottom of your TV screen can be mind-numbing afterseveral minutes. I feel as if I’m on some serious Valium.

When it comes time to make a decision, I don’t need mind-numbing influences. My mind is numb enough at 4 a.m. without Kenny G. Of course, I don’t think the Rolling Stones doing “Start Me Up” would be palatable at that time of the day, either. So how do I make the call? Simple. The mute button. There, that’s better. First some coffee. Now I can think.

The Waist Factor
As I analyze the details of my decision-making process, let me clear up some misconceptions.

First, the primary concern in forming a decision about calling off school is the safety of the students. All other factors (such as how parents will deal with child care and whether sports activities will be affected) are irrelevant.

Second, I don’t own a big honkin’ Hummer that will get me though the snow where other vehicles fear to tread. I do own an all-wheel-drive sedan. Actually, it belongs to Linda, my wife. When the weather is really, really bad, she lets me use the four-wheeler. Linda is still sleeping at 4 a.m., which is too bad because she likes Kenny G and the Weather Channel.

Third, the snow does not have to be up to my waist before I decide to call off school. Once upon a time, a 1st-grader asked me how deep the snow had to be before I called off school. I joked, “It has to be up to my waist.” I should have known. Be careful when trying to joke with 1st-graders. They tend to take things literally — as do some adults when they overhear some conversations.

My up-to-my-waist comment somehow became an unwritten law in the district. Because I stand 6-foot-6, my waist is up about four feet from the ground.

Fourth, I don’t make the call to leave school open because I think it’s the macho thing to do. I simply weigh all of the circumstances, discuss the decision to be made with others (e.g., transportation supervisor, police department, state patrol, etc.) and make the call.

Fifth, I admit to having made mistakes in my decisions. These are usually obvious even to the most casual observer. The most surefire way to make the weather turn nice is to call off school, a fact that all superintendents north of Oklahoma know.

Cantankerous Callers
Of course, I sometimes get phone calls at home and in my office from folks who question my intelligence and ancestry. My secretary, Ellen, and other secretaries in the district, should get medals for fielding phone calls from irate callers who think school should be called off only when the falling flakes are as big as half-dollars. The angriest parents generally live directly across the street from the school their child attends.

Ellen has taken calls from individuals who want to talk to blanketyblank. In this case, my secretary knows exactly whom the caller is asking for.

Snow callers usually come in two types. The first type is polite and respectful, but I’m never certain how to answer their big question, which I’ll paraphrase: “Where is your head?” I assume this caller thinks my head is in some dark place.

The second type of snow caller is much more direct: “When are you going to pull your head out?” These callers presume my head is already deeply embedded in some dark place. I want to answer this way: “I’ll pull my head out when the sun starts shining and people stop calling!”

Before I return to the Weather Channel, I have to dig myself out of the drifts I have dug myself into. First, I don’t mind light jazz. I even own at least one Kenny G cassette tape. Second, folks here are justified in calling to question my decisions. They have a right to express themselves, even if the tone of their expression or their complaint is not appealing to me.

That is, indeed, the beauty of democracy and public education, especially in the Northern Plains in winter. And that’s why I get paid the big bucks.

Randall Zitterkopf is superintendent of the Huron Public Schools, P.O. Box 949, Huron, SD 57350. E-mail: