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Viewpoint: ‘Snow days’ a tough, but important, decision

The governor called off school and I say thank you, governor.

For 19 years I served five school districts as the superintendent of schools. During that time, the most difficult decision to be made was when was the weather bad enough to call off school. In early days, the weather reporting was not all that good. I would call off school late in the evening and find the sun was out and the snow melting in the streets by mid-morning the next day. But today, weather reporting is extremely accurate. When Paul Douglas or Dave Dahl tells us that it is going to be 20 to 30 degrees below zero in a few days, they are almost always right.

Over the years I have had way too many phone calls or emails telling me that I ruined the day by calling off school — but not any from students mind you. I was called just about every name you can imagine, because I made a decision that, at the time, appeared to be in the best interest of school children.

I am a great second-guesser and Monday morning quarterback, but how could anyone second-guess my weather predictions? It happened every time I called off school. It wasn’t cold enough. And if I decided we would have school, there was too much snow or it was too cold and we should not have had school. I was told I put our employees at risk or that the children would freeze and if any of that happened it would be my fault. God how I hated those days. The phone would ring off the hook and everyone wanted a piece of the person who made such an “awful” decision.

I remember one father calling me around 6 a.m. to tell me I cost him $200 that day because he had to stay at home with his children and not go to work. I would always tell the angry parent on the phone or through email that the children were theirs, and they had the final decision about sending the child to school or keeping them at home. But let me tell you, when you have an angry parent on the phone, there is not anything you can say other then “Have a good day,” something they do not want to hear. Maybe that is why I like saying it?

When I decided to go ahead and have school, I would spend all day watching the weather in fear that we would have to send the students home early — the worst of all scenarios — and on occasion, it happened.

Some folks had the strange idea that if we called off school we would not get our state aid (money) for the day, so we would have school to get the money. Once I was told that the school lunch was prepared so I would not send the children home until it was eaten, again a money decision. Money is never an issue when calling off school or deciding to have school.  This decision is always based on student safety.

Now I realize that adult lives are complicated. People have work or other commitments, but we live in Minnesota. These weather days are going to happen, so please make prior arrangements to care for your children. Every single year of my superintendent career I would write to the parents in late September or early October to remind them that a Minnesota winter was the way and that we may have some severe weather that would impact their lives.  I would also have the principals send out their own message on weather-related closing. I guess no one read those letters or releases as we never heard back until the day that severe weather attacked us. Then all hell would break loose.

In all fairness, every so often, I would get a call from someone who agreed with me, but this was a rarity. When Arne Carlson was governor, three times he called off school statewide, and there was an uproar about whether it was right for him to usurp local control and decision-making.

Well, Gov. Carlson, you were right. And Gov. Dayton, good call.

Tom Nelson is a former superintendent of South Washington County Schools and other Twin Cities school districts.