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Wed, Nov. 20

What makes a snow day?<BR><I>School district superintendents shoulder the tough call</I>

To call a snow day or not to call a snow day – that is the question local school superintendents must answer before 6 a.m. on snowy or icy mornings.

On such days, when children still are tucked warm in bed, local education and transportation officials are bustling around in the cold, making decisions that affect literally thousands of families – and they must finish it all by 6 a.m.

"It is an imperfect process," Chino Valley Unified School District (CVUSD) Supt. Linda Nelson said of deciding whether to call a snow day or a two-hour delayed start.

"Predicting the weather is very challenging," said Prescott Unified School District (PUSD) Supt. Kevin Kapp. "But we do our best to do what's safest for our families and employees."

At a sign of possible snow or ice, all four local transportation directors – from PUSD, CVUSD, Humboldt Unified School District (HUSD) and Mayer Unified School District (MUSD) – get up before 4 a.m. and check out the roads.

Jim Nelson, MUSD superintendent, said the MUSD transportation director and bus mechanic head out to different ends of the district and drive potentially dangerous areas.

"There are some areas where a lot of snow is not dangerous and some where a little bit of snow is dangerous," he said.

Also, sometimes fog rises when the pavement begins to warm up, he said, and causes thick fog that could make it difficult for other drivers to see school buses and children.

Jeff Lambert, transportation director for CVUSD, said temperature plays a big factor.

Both he and Cindy Brown, PUSD's transportation director, said the sun rising causes the temperature to drop.

Lambert said if it's already below freezing before sunrise and he anticipates it getting colder, he'll recommend closing school for the day. If temperatures are hovering around freezing and he anticipates them going up, he may call a two-hour delay to give the roads time to thaw.

Brown pointed out that "it's important for people to realize that some of our buses go up into higher elevations."

Kapp said one of his former students, Curtis James, Ph.D., is a meteorologist at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, so when a storm begins heading toward Prescott, Kapp calls James.

"He has high-level weather knowledge," Kapp said. "He's been a real resource for us."

Sally Rackley, administrative secretary to HUSD Supt. Henry Schmitt, said in the event of a potential snow day, the transportation director reviews the situation and, in consultation with Schmitt, decides whether to call a snow day or a delayed opening.

Once officials have reached decisions, they must begin to notify radio stations, employees and students. Phone trees take effect and finally, when kids are getting out of bed, the superintendents and transportation officials can rest – unless they decided not to call a snow day, in which case they get ready for work.

Linda Nelson, Kapp and Jim Nelson all said that sometimes just after they've reached a decision and notified the media, the weather changes completely.

However, by that time, parents are planning and buses either are or aren't running and changing that decision would cause chaos.

Kapp said deciding whether to call a snow day is one of the most difficult parts of his job.

Contact the reporter at heller@prescottaz.com

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