Wednesday March 20, 2013

DAWSON RASPUZZI

Staff Writer

BENNINGTON -- It is often a thankless task that requires careful consideration and study. No matter the outcome, the fact of the matter is, somebody is bound to be upset with the decision.

Catherine McClure's alarm clock got her out of bed around 4:30 a.m. Tuesday morning. The clock was ticking the moment she rose, eliminating any chance of relaxation while sipping a cup of coffee.

Upon McClure's going to bed Monday night, forecasts predicted three, four, even six inches of fresh powder would blanket the ground by sunrise. By Tuesday morning there was no more than a dusting -- hardly enough to cover the crocuses protruding from the ground. The threat of snow, however, was far from gone.

One hour is all the time the superintendent is afforded to make the decision whether to cancel classes in the nine Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union schools.

The decision has serious consequences, related not only to the safety of children riding the school buses, but the safety of commuters, walkers, and staff who sometimes drive more than an hour to get to school. It is a small part of the superintendent's job description, but the importance of it is much more significant.

Before making the decision of to call off school -- the impact of which affects 3,000 students and their families, many of whom would have to find child care or take a day off from work to stay home -- McClure goes through a long list of weather sources to get the latest forecasts.


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The process begins with checking the Aviation Digital Data Service radar, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website, listening to an NOAA emergency weather radio and making a call into a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Albany, N.Y.

With a grasp of the forecast for the day -- or at least as good of a grasp as is possible in New England -- phone calls regarding local road conditions begin. They start with 511, which McClure said she often must make twice -- once early and again right before making a decision to ensure she has the most up to date information. The next call, and maybe the most important, goes to Dufour Inc., which does the busing for all of the SVSU schools except Pownal. Dufour District Manager Mike Gardner plays a significant role in the decision because of his knowledge of road conditions around the area. Gardner also has the ability to determine the roads are unsafe for his drivers.

McClure then calls the highway departments in Pownal and Bennington to get their take on road conditions and receive updates regarding where the departments are in the process of clearing the roads.

"I'll get updates back like, ‘we've salted the main roads, the back roads are still frozen. They should be passable,'" McClure said.

She also checks in with the Vermont State Police for updates on state roads and conditions in Woodford. Sometimes, "if I'm really in a quandary," McClure said the calls continue to individuals she knows who live in areas road crews don't get to before the sun rises.

It is likely 5:30 a.m., by this time, which means McClure has to make a final decision.

"I have to make a decision by 5:30. I try not to change it after then," she said. "We're starting our bus runs for high school by 6:10 and we have faculty traveling from out of state ... I try to be cognizant of all of their issues as well, but it's really hard."

No matter how many perspectives she receives, and no matter how many meteorologist opinions are available, there are bound to be decisions that will be second guessed.

McClure has 13 years' experience making the decision whether to cancel school for inclement weather -- a dozen of which were in New Hampshire. While weather in New Hampshire and Vermont is comparable, McClure said weather in this particular region is especially difficult to predict due to mountains and valleys that paint the five towns in the supervisory union.

"What's different about the changing weather patterns we have is the mountains, and then it's open to the west," McClure said. "We have all these pockets divided down in Pownal, and we have North Shaftsbury, and basically all the way up Woodford Mountain. It really makes it very difficult."

With forecasts changing so frequently, McClure rarely makes a decision the evening before a storm is predicted -- and it may be even more rare in the future after the last time she made such a decision. With meteorologists forecasting snow dumping down on the region by the morning one day in January, McClure and many other school officials around the state called school the evening prior to allow parents additional time to make plans. When the sun came, up the weather was clear. Morning turned into mid-day; however, the weather was unchanged. By the time the final school bell would have rung there was still no sign of snow. "I have to say, it was embarrassing to have called the night before and have the storm completely miss us with no snow," McClure recalled with a embarrassed smile.

More recently -- about two weeks ago -- many schools in the area canceled classes or called for a delayed opening. By 5:30 a.m., McClure made the decision to have SVSU schools open as usual. Within an hour a number of road problems were being reported around the county and McClure began regretting the decision.

Checking her messages late that afternoon, McClure had a number from parents second-guessing her decision. McClure called back all those who left their numbers and admitted to making a decision she came to regret.

On Tuesday it was a different story as the weather panned out almost exactly how it was forecast by 5 a.m.

"Today was a difficult one, in that, the radar showed a second surge of snow that was going to bypass Bennington -- but in fact it did hit Bennington a little bit this afternoon -- but the radar was right, it finished before 2 o'clock," McClure said.

Had the radar shown the snow pattern passing directly over Bennington when arriving around 11 a.m., McClure said she likely would have canceled school. Another option would have been early dismissal; however, that option is generally used only when weather sneaks up on the day.

"We don't like to do an early release, and the reason is that it's hard to ensure that people are home from work for the younger students," McClure said.

When she gets it wrong (and truthfully, that largely means others who are feeding her the information get it wrong), McClure -- not complaining but more matter-of-fact -- said she can expect to get some phone calls from parents. On a day like Tuesday, McClure said her phone was much more silent, other than maybe a call or two asking whether consideration was given to people who had to drive on the back roads of Pownal.

Asked if she has ever received a call recognizing a good decision, McClure paused for a moment before confirming it has actually happened.

"I might have gotten one or two in my career," she said, letting out a soft chuckle.

Contact Dawson Raspuzzi at draspuzzi@benningtonbanner.com or follow on Twitter @DawsonRaspuzzi