Anatomy of My Snow Daze

In our high-tech world, superintendents now have the capacity to make data-based weather predictions. I refer to these as Data-Based Guesses or DBGs.

As all old timers in the superintendency know, these DBGs add a new dimension to the challenge of calling a snow day. As a veteran of this high-stakes game, I cut my teeth and honed my skills on pure, gut-based, self-developed methods, otherwise known as “Heads we go; tails we don’t.”

Today’s media barons haven’t done us any favors in the way they cover the weather. When I was a boy, the six o’clock news devoted the final few minutes of a half-hour newscast to the weather. Today’s extended news shows often start their broadcasts with the weather, especially in the winter, with an ominous warning: “Get ready! Buy your bottled water and batteries, fill your tubs full of water, clean out the grocery store—the big one is coming.”

Mind you, it’s not coming today or tomorrow. It’s predicted to hit seven days from now.

The hype only raises the emotions. The early morning weathercast reports on every snowflake on every corner beginning at 5 a.m. Live camera feeds show plow trucks plowing nothing, streets devoid of cars and pedestrians. TV correspondents stand in the cold, their garments flapping in the wind.

What superintendent in his or her right mind would try to run school when the news media have been forecasting this killer storm for the past 10 days?

Independent Research
So what does a superintendent do? I start almost 24 hours ahead, looking first at what’s happening in school tomorrow: Is there a varsity basketball game? A district music competition? Then I call the superintendents in surrounding districts to make sure they are going to be home in the middle of the night, just in case we need to talk.

I might call my friends at the Federal Aviation Administration, the National Weather Service, the state Department of Transportation and people I know “down river” in Massachusetts and New Hampshire to see what weather is heading our way.

Finally, I’ll contact the district’s paid weather consultant who usually gives me a forecast such as: “Big storm warning! It could rain! It could snow! Depends on if it goes east or west. It might not be here if it doesn’t slow down. It might go out to sea, but one thing is for sure—north of Boston, it will be hard to tell what it’s going to do. There will be a news report soon, but the superintendent of schools should really observe local conditions.”

By 10:30 or 11 p.m. I’m ready for bed. But first I take one more look outside. I don’t pull the shade tonight; I can panic when I no longer see the stars. Setting the alarm for 3:30 a.m. just in case I do fall asleep (fat chance), I toss and turn, waiting for The Big One to hit.

3:30 a.m.: It’s time for the Big Decision. Up on my feet. Open the window. No moon. I venture outside. It’s not too cold, but it’s not too warm either. Could be freezing rain. Jump in the truck to find out what’s happening across town. It’s raining north of the post office, but it’s snowing at the mall.

4:30 a.m.: Back home. Call superintendents in bordering communities. Turn on the TV and wait for of the list of closings and delays. Boston channels, Portland channel, Augusta channel. Here it comes—Bangor cancels. Now the ball is in my court. The worst is yet to come. Schools in adjacent districts begin to cancel. The roads in Ellsworth are fine, but there is no way we can stay open. Now schools both north and south of our district have cancelled. We will have to close.

5:30 a.m.: Hit the phones. Making 20 to 25 calls to get the word out is routine. After 25 years of calls, disc jockeys at radio stations call me by name.

6 a.m.: Done. Stomach ache. Must have been the three pots of coffee. But my research was successful. It’s now snowing hard, so at least 50 percent of the community will support my decision.

6:15 a.m.: Go to work. The superintendent’s office doesn’t close. Now begins the rescheduling brought on by the latest “Biggest Storm of the Century.”

Basic Instincts
Ironically, as I prepare the final touches on this commentary in the early morning hours in mid-December, it’s snowing.

Today I rely on basic instincts. Though not likely to be a bad storm, we may get three inches. By 4 a.m., it is snowing hard. Five inches already has accumulated at the bus garage.

My superintendent-meteorologist friends are reluctant to make the big decision. “What are you going to do?” they banter across the phone lines until almost 6 a.m. It is getting really late. I must make my call soon. Without the “data” for a decision, I resort to my “one time” support. I cancel school. “We’re down,” I report to the staff.

You see, I couldn’t go wrong today. It was the first snowstorm of the year. All the crazies overreact to the first snow. We need to play it safe. We closed her down.

It wound up snowing all day long—almost 12 inches of snow. I sure am glad I used my 26 different websites this morning to help me make this tough call.

Jack Turcotte is superintendent of Ellsworth School Department, 9 Forrest Ave., Ellsworth, ME 04605. E-mail: jturcotte@mail.hctc.k12.me.us. In a previous superintendency in Maine, he operated the district snow plows.