As a powerful snowstorm with blizzard conditions began to ease up late Monday afternoon, leaving some 2 feet of snow in its wake, a trio of school superintendents representing the Waterville, Oakland and Fairfield areas connected on the phone.
It wasn’t unusual for Eric Haley, Gary Smith and Dean Baker to discuss the weather outlook jointly, but what was different is that the central Maine school officials had decided schools in their districts would remain canceled a second day in a row.
They determined public works crews needed more time to clean up roads and parking lots before hundreds of vehicles could squeeze into lots around schools. School buses also needed to be shoveled out, a process that took most of Tuesday morning.
“This was storm upon storm, going nonstop,” Smith said of the road crews. “They were exhausted, and when we spoke around 4 o’clock Monday, there was a one-lane path to Messalonskee Middle School. Eric Haley, Dean Baker and I said, ‘We need more time to clean up.'”
Making those calls has come at a price — many local schools already have used up allotted snow days for the season and must weigh options for making up some of those days or lengthening the school year in late June.
Typically, it’s Smith, superintendent of Oakland-based RSU 18 and a light sleeper, who starts doing hourly weather checks at 1 a.m. when there is a question about whether to call off school because of weather. At 4 or 4:30 a.m., he connects with Haley, superintendent of Waterville-based AOS 92, and Dean Baker, superintendent of Fairfield-based SAD 49.
“We connect with road crews out there, transportation folks and plow crews to see where things are,” Smith said Tuesday morning. “Typically by 4 or 5 a.m., we announce a decision.”
AOS 92 includes schools in Waterville, Winslow and Vassalboro; RSU 18’s schools are in Oakland, Belgrade, Sidney and China; and SAD 49 consists of Fairfield, Benton, Albion and Clinton.
The state Department of Education requires schools to have 175 “seat days,” or days when students actually sit in their seats at school. The last school day for students in RSU 18 for the 2017-17 year is scheduled for June 20 and already, the district has gone beyond its four built-in snow days.
If there are no other school closings this year, school will end on June 22, according to Smith. AOS 92 has gone three days beyond the calendar’s built-in snow days.
But school officials can look at various options for making those days up so that students will not have to go to school for extra days in June, such as turning special staff development days into “seat” days, according to both Smith and Haley.
Haley said another option is to add an hour to the school day to help make up the days.
Under state law, a school district “operating under a plan approved by the commissioner, may provide for a one-hour extension of the school day for up to 25 days in a school year,” and five of those one-hour extensions “may be counted as one additional school day.” That option is available only if a local plan is approved by the state’s education commissioner.
“For every five days we do that, the DOE grants a seat day,” Haley said, adding that schools may do that only for weather or emergency events.
AOS 92 has two upcoming in-service days scheduled for March and May and could substitute them for seat days to gain two days back, according to Haley.
Monday and Tuesday were the fourth and fifth snow days of the school year in Winthrop. Superintendent Gary Rosenthal said he made the decision to close schools for Tuesday after consulting with school district and city maintenance officials.
“As fast as they were plowing, it was blowing right back,” Rosenthal said. “We’ve got a lot of back roads and camp roads that are difficult to get to, and I heard things were difficult at best.”
Rosenthal said he’ll always err on the side of caution and do what’s best for the children and the staff because safety is the district’s top priority.
“I want kids in school as much as possible, and I don’t want them going until the end of June,” he said, “but I’m not going to put the kids or our staff members in harm’s way.”
With another storm expected to dump up to a foot of snow from Wednesday into Thursday in central Maine, superintendents will be watching and monitoring weather reports.
Haley said that if snow does not arrive until later in the morning for a storm, schools may decide to have an early release day; if it snows in the morning during a storm and then subsides, schools may do late start. Late start and early release days count as full days.
“This is supposed to be heavy, wet snow,” Haley said of the Wednesday-Thursday storm.
He said he knew Monday’s storm would be bad when weather experts started describing it as a blizzard.
As of Tuesday morning, crews were working to clear school parking lots and dig buses out from under the snow, according to Haley. “It’s a mess,” he said.
Baker, in SAD 49, was not immediately available for comment Tuesday morning.
Meanwhile, some districts returned to school Tuesday, including School Administrative District 54, based in Skowhegan, which includes schools in Canaan, Norridgewock, Cornville and Smithfield and Mercer.
Staff writer Jason Pafundi contributed reporting.
Amy Calder — 861-9247