- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 8, 2004

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Eight years ago, in the middle of the night, John Yagielski watched his car burn outside his home and decided then and there to end his 30-year career in education.

No one was ever arrested, but police say the fire was set because school superintendent Mr. Yagielski had extended the school day by 40 minutes for a few weeks to make up for a snow day.

Superintendents say calling a snow day is one of their most difficult decisions — usually a no-win proposition that results in hundreds of calls and e-mails from parents complaining when school is closed or when it isn’t.

“That kind of judgment is subject to everyone’s second-guessing,” said Mr. Yagielski, former superintendent of the large suburban Shenendehowa Central school system. “Nowadays, that has real implications for families. It’s very rarely clean.”

This winter has been so snowy that many schools nationwide already have exhausted their allotted snow days and may have to hold classes on Saturdays, during spring break or at the end of the school year.

In New York, a storm last week forced the cancellation of required state exams, and nine snow days so far led the Oswego Central school system to cancel winter break.

The superintendent’s best guess before dawn affects thousands of kids, staff members, teachers and parents, who can suddenly have big child-care problems if school is canceled.

“It’s much tougher now than 20 or 30 years ago just because there are two working parents,” said Bruce Hunter of the American Association of School Administrators.

Before pulling the plug on a school day, superintendents use a system that can include field operatives traversing hazardous streets, Internet forecasts and, increasingly, a school district’s own Doppler radar.

Superintendents also juggle a growing array of considerations, including federal and state requirements that specify the number of days school must be in session, and mounting pressure to improve student performance. Failing to meet some of those requirements can mean a loss of funding.

They also must weigh a rising threat of lawsuits in case of weather-related accidents.

And the dilemma extends well beyond the Snow Belt.

“When you think of snow days, you have to think as far south as North Carolina and Oklahoma,” Mr. Hunter said. “Northern Arkansas school districts have snow days. It’s freezing rain, but it’s every bit as lethal — in fact, more lethal, because you can stop in snow.”

Early in Sam Martin’s 19-year career in Ohio, snow days kept him awake at night. The year before he started as superintendent in a rural district, a teacher was killed as he tried to make his way to work during a two-hour delay. In Mr. Martin’s first year in the Buckeye Valley district, a school bus slid on an icy 80-foot ridge and was stopped only by a tree.

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