Behind the scenes of an MCPS snow day

2010-11-23T22:18:00Z 2010-11-23T22:20:17Z Behind the scenes of an MCPS snow dayBy JAMIE KELLY of the Missoulian missoulian.com
November 23, 2010 10:18 pm  • 

Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Alex Apostle was waiting for the call, which came during whiteout conditions in the pre-dawn darkness.

Visibility was near zero, the voice on the line said, and so was the temperature. Even the chemical deicer being dumped on the roads was icing over, and snowplowed roads were almost immediately in need of replowing.

So Apostle, like nearly every superintendent in the county, made a quick but not hasty decision.

"There was no question in my mind that it was not safe for parents or staff or children to come to school," said Apostle at his cabinet meeting Tuesday morning. "Period."

End of sentence. End of school day.

With some exceptions, western Montana's schools closed their doors Tuesday, an infrequent but not entirely rare occurrence when the weather turns ugly.

The result is that thousands of students in the area got a day off as the region became a winter-walloped wonderland.

All this was decided in the span of 15 minutes, at a time when most people were still in REM sleep.

***

Here's how the school-closure process goes, at least for MCPS and its 8,500 students.

Around 5:30 a.m., Beach Transportation contacts area police and the Montana Highway Patrol for road and emergency conditions.

Immediately, Beach calls MCPS regional director Mark Thane, executive director of transportation Pat McHugh and facilities director Scott Reed.

All three then call Apostle, who makes his decision by 5:45 a.m.

Apostle notifies public relations director Lesli Brassfield, who contacts all media: the Missoulian and the television and radio stations. She orders the district to update its phone message.

Meanwhile, Beach Transportation notifies Thane, who then contacts the other regional managers, who contact all 16 MCPS principals, who contact all teachers. The principals staff their schools with those charged with clearing the sidewalks and turning away students and parents who haven't gotten the news.

Meanwhile, MCPS food services contacts the district's central kitchen and all school kitchens.

The result is that within a half-hour, everybody who should know or is curious about whether schools are open have access to numerous streams of information.

How did it work Tuesday morning?

Just two parents contacted MCPS by phone before school.

"In my experience, to have just two phone calls is pretty phenomenal," said Apostle.

And the five-day Thanksgiving weekend quickly became a six-day vacation.

MCPS and other districts are required by the state to offer 1,092 hours of instruction per year.

But state law also allows them a one-day school closure. If the schedule after that would jeopardize the instruction-hour requirement, schools would have to make up the time with an extended school year, or by jettisoning shortened "in-service" days.

That's not the case at MCPS - barring, of course, another wicked weather event.

Under labor contracts, all certified staff - teachers - are given the day off with pay. But that was not the case for classified staff until this year. Under the new contract signed with the classified union, the classified staff also got the day off with pay.

"The decision we've made is that certified and classified staff will be treated equally in these situations," said Apostle.

Still, a few students didn't get the news, and so schools did staff enough employees to clear the sidewalks and give them the news.

"The word doesn't always get out universally," said Thane.

Reporter Jamie Kelly can be reached at 523-5254 or at jkelly@missoulian.com.

 

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