Metro

For school superintendents, it’s the toughest call

Topsfield, MA 12/09/05 The winter crew for First Student (cq), a school bus compay, moves school buses so a parking lot where they park can be plowed. The buses are parked at the Topsfield Fair Grounds. Near white out conditions made for a tough afternoon of driving, though Topsfield had no school. (Globe Staff Photo / Mark Wilson)
Mark Wilson/Globe Staff/file
Buses were parked at the Topsfield Fair Grounds during a storm in 2005.

For all the anxiety about standardized test scores, achievement gaps, and teacher contracts, it’s still one of the diciest decisions any superintendent has to make: to call, or not to call, a snow day.

“It’s the worst part of the job,” said Matt Malone, superintendent of schools in Fall River. “We get into this work to educate kids, and what do we do? We get in trouble for making snow calls.”

The pressure, Malone said, is especially intense when the storm is relatively minor but arrives in the morning, like the one expected to disrupt Wednesday morning’s commute. About 2 to 4 inches is expected in the Boston area – hardly epic by New England standards.

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“The hardest thing in the world is whether to have school or not have school when there’s a couple of inches,” Malone said Tuesday. “A major storm is easy to call. I won’t sleep a wink tonight.”

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A hard-liner who prides himself on logging several winters without granting a single snow day, Malone said he will probably decide whether to cancel around 4:45 a.m. Wednesday after conferring with his chief operating officer and the director of public works. A cancellation could delight children and annoy parents, but keeping schools open carries its own risk if the storm turns out to be worse than forecast.

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said the backlash from parents can be brutal when superintendents make the wrong call.

A former superintendent in Concord-Carlisle, Scott said he was once inundated by 60 calls from angry parents after he decided to keep schools open during a blizzard.

Particularly in the era of Twitter, “it becomes a free-for-all in terms of opinion,” Scott said.

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And yet there is no foolproof method for determining when to cancel schools and when to force parents, students, and teachers to slog through the snow, wind, ice, and rain that is part of life in New England.

“The process is not particularly scientific,” Scott said. “It’s the timing, it’s the amount, it’s the conditions, it’s the availability of the community to be able to clear the snow to allow for traffic and students to walk — all of those factors have to be weighed.”

When storms are modest, or arrive during the day, he said, superintendents usually err on the side of caution and cancel, rather than face the possibility of students being stranded at bus stops or walking through traffic to avoid snowy sidewalks.

“That’s the nightmare,” Scott said. “You have to make sure safety is paramount in your mind in terms of making these decisions.”

The powerful snowstorm two weeks ago was an easy for call for many superintendents because forecasters made clear that the state was going to be walloped by cyclone-like winds and more than a foot of snow, followed quickly by dangerous, subzero temperatures.

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Brockton, like many districts, decided before the storm hit that week to cancel school on Thursday and Friday, said Michael Thomas, deputy superintendent of Brockton’s schools. That gave families some time to plan for child care.

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But this week’s storm is trickier, Thomas said, because it is much smaller and may bring a mix of snow and rain.

Thomas said he plans to check forecasts throughout the night and then consult with the mayor, the director of public works, the fire chief, and the local emergency management director at 4 a.m.

Superintendent Kathleen A. Smith then has until 5:15 a.m. to decide whether Brockton’s 18,000 students will have to study geometry and history, or enjoy that cherished rite of childhood, a snow day filled with sledding, snowball fights, and long hours in front of the television.

“It’s one of the toughest decisions a superintendent has to make because you’re inconveniencing a lot of people if it ends up being a dud,” Thomas said. “But on the other hand, you have to take into consideration the safety and security of the kids.”

Like many parents, Angelina Camacho, the mother of a fourth-grader at the Hurley School in Boston’s South End, was anxiously waiting for word from Boston’s superintendent, Tommy Chang.

“If it’s not going to be safe, then call it,” said Camacho, whose son rides the bus to school. “Is it convenient? No. Is it a hardship for us? Absolutely. But I think about the entire village and what’s best for them.”

Camacho said because she is not working, she can care for her son, as well as several other children from his school, if they have the day off. Many other parents will have to scramble for child care.

James E. Adams, superintendent of Ashland schools, said students were already stopping him in the hallways of the high school on Tuesday to insist that Wednesday’s snowstorm was going to be “the storm of the century.”

Despite their lobbying for a cancellation, which usually ramps up on Twitter the night before a storm, he said will base his decision on the more seasoned judgment of the police chief, the director of public works, and the superintendents in several surrounding districts.

“I take my advice from the professionals,” Adams said. “Their opinion and their expertise weighs a little more than students online.”

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.