Two superintendents are experiencing their first winters with their Northwest Arkansas districts after coming from regions where it's not unusual to go to school when it snows.
The Northwest Arkansas region saw a small amount of snow a few days before the official start of winter Dec. 21. Forecasts for this week have hinted at snow, though area predictions now show little to no winter precipitation.
The new superintendents in Fayetteville and Rogers spent last winter in school districts where snowfall is more prevalent. Here’s how Northwest Arkansas compares to those regions:
RegionAverage annual snowfallAverage days with at least one inch of snow
Northwest Arkansas7 inches3 days
Chicago36.3 inches11 days
Kansas City, Mo.18.8 inches6 days
Source: National Weather Service
The Chicago area, where Fayetteville Superintendent Matthew Wendt was based a year ago, already has seen more than a dozen days of light to heavy snow since November. The Kansas City, Mo., region, where Rogers Superintendent Marlin Berry previously worked, has seen a few days of light snow.
Northwest Arkansas superintendents say they make decisions based on student safety with input from officials in and out of their districts, including other school officials. Announcements will be shared as soon as 5:30 a.m. on district websites and Facebook and Twitter pages, along with local news sources.
In the Chicago area, classes were more likely to be called off because of extreme wind chills than for snow, Wendt said. He was superintendent for School District 308 in Oswego, Ill., a little more than 40 miles from Chicago. He's also worked in school administration in Kansas and Iowa.
Wendt remembers canceling classes for a week in Oswego because of wind chills of 35 to 40 degrees below 0, but that year was unusual, he said.
In Illinois, Kansas and Iowa, it's common for cities, counties, state agencies and even school districts to have personnel and equipment for removing large amounts of snow, he said. Wendt's former districts owned blades that fit on trucks and tractors for removing snow, equipment for spreading salt and in one case a salt mound.
"What I'm understanding in Northwest Arkansas is that's a difference," Wendt said.
He's already run into problems caused by a lack of snow removal equipment. One year on a visit as a parent of a University of Arkansas student, he and his wife were unable to get to the airport because roads to the airport closed after a snowfall of "not that many inches."
Within the past 10 years in states farther north, Wendt said snow led to canceled classes a few days each school year. The most common reason was because large amounts of snow continued falling and couldn't be cleared.
Crews had time to clear roads, parking lots and sidewalks for the school day if the snow stopped falling overnight, he said.
A past practice Wendt will continue in Fayetteville involves working closely with his staff, as well as with city and county officials, law enforcement and weather experts, he said. Here, he also will consult with the University of Arkansas.
John L Colbert, the district's associate superintendent over operations, will start conversations to assess whether schools should close, Wendt said. Wendt will make the final call.
Berry spent nine years in Olathe, Kan., School District, outside of Kansas City.
"Kansas City doesn't slow down too much because people have to get to work," he said.
The number of bad weather days varied from none to a handful, he said. If roads were covered and snow was to fall throughout the day, sometimes it was best to stay home.
"For me it comes down to one thing," said Berry, who was superintendent for two other Kansas districts. "If we can get kids here safely, we can have it."
In Rogers, district staff will venture out on the roads early in the morning, Berry said. Berry not only considers the safety of riders on school buses, but also young drivers.
The terrain around Beaver Lake makes for some steep roads that are difficult for a school bus, Berry said. In some cases, a school bus will not make its usual stop, but will pick up children from designated points.
If it's not safe to get to the bus, parents have the right to keep their children home, Berry said.
In Springdale, officials evaluate main routes in times of snow and ice, including Sunset Street, Robinson Avenue, Thompson Street and Interstate 49, district spokesman Rick Schaeffer said. If those roads are clear, schools generally open, he said.
Bus drivers are encouraged to avoid roads they think are too hazardous, and if students aren't able to get to school safely, they can get an excused absence, he said.
"We've been lucky the last two years," Schaeffer said.
But the winter of the 2013-14 school year came with about a dozen snow days for Northwest Arkansas districts.
In Springdale, each snow day means another day is tacked onto the end of the school year, Schaeffer said. The district hasn't taken any snow days so the school year is still set to end May 24.
Bentonville School District's new chief is familiar with winter in central Arkansas. Prior to joining Bentonville, Superintendent Debbie Jones was an assistant commissioner for the Arkansas Department of Education and an assistant superintendent for the Bryant School District.
This is the first time she has the final say on whether schools should close, she said.
The Bentonville district includes the hills and narrow roads around Bella Vista, often the greatest concern when winter weather hits, Jones said. A handful of staff members are involved in the decision making.
"It's a tough call," Jones said.
NW News on 01/05/2017
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