Deciding whether to close Sevier schools for weather is a serious matter

Nov. 27, 2013 @ 07:39 AM

For two to three months a year — November through February, specifically — school children across the country become amateur meteorologists.

You need an up-to-the-minute forecast? Ask a high school sophomore.

The reason for their excitement is the chance that snow or ice may close schools for a day or two, giving them a spontaneous and blissfully unscheduled break from their day-to-day studies.

For Jack Parton, Sevier County Director of Schools, and the rest of the decision-makers at the central office, things aren’t always so joyful.

Hard decisions must be made, often with weather still hours away.

“The decision is not taken lightly,” Dr. Debra Cline, Sevier County Schools assistant superintendent, said Tuesday. “A school day is important. But the most important thing is the safety and security of our children.”

Cline said Parton — who ultimately makes the decision on whether a school day is lost to weather — takes the duty seriously.

“Basically, when we have inclement weather that is coming in or has arrived, he keeps tabs or has a group of people ... that keeps tabs on the conditions of the roads,” Cline said.

At the first sign of foul weather, Parton’s advisors, including local law enforcement agencies, report back to him on road conditions around the county.

“If we have inclement weather that comes in through the night we have crews of people that actually get out and test those roads and look to see whether or not it would be safe for buses to travel on those roads,” Cline said. “And that would be true either for snow, ice or flooding conditions — any kind of conditions that change the road in a negative way. We have people that are out looking at that to see whether or not it’s safe for the buses to move.

“They report back ... Then, at that point, taking all that into advisement, (Parton) makes the call on whether or not we will run the buses and whether we’ll have school.”

One factor that can make the call tricky is the variety of areas covered by the school system.

“The fact that a large part of system the buses travel on mountainous roads (complicates things),” Cline said. “(Parton) has to look at all of that in terms of making a decision. He gets a tremendous amount of information from a team of people that he has go out and look at roads from various parts of the county.”

Based on the road conditions, the weather forecast and other factors, he then makes a decision.

“That comes from listening to and understanding a variety of sources,” Cline said. “In all cases, his responsibility — and he takes it very seriously — is to make the decision that’s in the best interest of the safety of children.”

Notifying parents

Once the decision on schools is made, the district sets off to notify parents as quickly as possible.

A telephone notification system is initiated almost immediately once Parton reaches a decision to cancel or delay school.

“The call is initiated immediately, but it takes some time,” Cline said, “because there’s close to 16,000 phones that are notified. So it takes a process for that to go through.

“A call goes out to the primary number that’s recorded for each student, and that happens in the early-morning hours, or at the most opportune time.

“If we know the evening before that the road conditions are such that we won’t be able to have school, he makes that call as early as is feasible,” Cline said. “The message is sent out as soon as the superintendent makes that decision.”

Area media outlets are also contacted to begin spreading the word through traditional means.

“We also put the closure notice on our website,” Cline said.

All or none

Some have questioned whether or not the county should break down cancellations to only hold out schools in the most affected areas.

But, being a consolidated school district, the county’s schools are either all in session or none are.

“It’s one unified school district that serves all of the county and all of the cities,” Cline said. “The decision is made to either have school in the entire county or not to have school in the entire county.”

Still, the thought surfaced once, years ago, to do things in sections. It was a plan that, once investigated, had too many problems.

“We had investigated at one time, years ago, looking at zones. But you get into some situations that are actually not feasible with school accountability with that,” Cline said.