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No pressure, but this early-morning decision affects thousands

Anne Wallace Allen 2015For the top brass at the Boise School District, making a decision that will affect many thousands of people comes down to getting up in the middle of the night to drive around town.

That’s what Superintendent Don Coberly, Deputy Superintendent Coby Dennis, and six other directors have done repeatedly as Boise has been socked by snowstorms and freezing rain over the last few weeks.

The Boise district serves 26,000 students. When school is cancelled, a good number of parents have to scramble for child care. Many stay home; others bring their kids to work or get help from friends and family. Closing the schools doesn’t affect them only. It also means an unexpected pay cut for hourly workers who won’t be working that day. It trims how much money the district will get from the state next year because it affects the average daily attendance rates on which that state payout is based.

Canceling school also means disrupting meals that some low-income students count on, said Coberly. And it lowers productivity in general because so many workers, teachers and others, stay home that day.

Coberly couldn’t put a dollar cost on snow days, but it’s high. So making the right decision is important. Here’s how they do it.

If a storm is expected, the School District starts watching the National Weather Service report at about 3 p.m. That’s when they tentatively decide that a crew of eight School District leaders will get up at 3:30 a.m the next morning and drive separate areas of the district to assess the road conditions.

Coberly has to make the call by 5:30 a.m. in order to stop the first school buses from rolling out.

The eight who drive are Coberly, the district’s area directors, the district’s safety and security director, and its transportation supervisor. As they drive around at 3:30 a.m., they text and call each other and Ada County Highway District. Coberly also calls the other school districts to get an idea of what they are seeing, starting with Vallivue, whose superintendent is Coberly’s friend. They’re all located west of Boise.

“Typically storms will come in from the west, so we’ll have a pretty good idea of where we are with what Vallivue is seeing,” Coberly said. He then calls Nampa, Kuna, West Ada, and the Catholic schools to hear from them as well.

“So we’re not only analyzing what it looks like in different parts of Boise; we’re saying, ‘How does the rest of the valley look?’”

The drivers meet back at the school district offices at 4:45 a.m., talk about what they have seen, and help Coberly make a decision. Sometimes it just takes 5 minutes to agree that school needs to be closed.

The decision has to be made based on what the conditions are at 5:30 a.m. and not what they might be at 3 p.m. when school is getting out.

“We try to listen to what the experts are telling us, but we’re all at the mercy of what Mother Nature decides to do,” Dennis said.

This is the first year the School District has had to contract outside for snow and ice removal at its 50 buildings, and Coberly estimates that will cost about $100,000. This year, the district sent out a call for volunteers, and parents and children did show up to shovel sidewalks at school.

The District has now had seven snow days, far more than it’s ever had any year before. It’s unusual to have even one.  Lessons from the year of the snow: communication. The district sent out emails this year explaining the process that goes into deciding whether to call a snow day, and Coberly said he got a lot of positive responses. At a City Club forum he attended the other day, Coberly said at least 20 people approached him to say they hadn’t known about the 3:30 a.m. drive and were glad to hear about it.

“It is a weighty responsibility,” Coberly said. “We have to gauge whether we can get our buses going, whether our kids can walk to school and be safe. And we have to be reasonable and understand that our community need us to have school, for a lot of reasons, and learning is obviously one of them.”

Anne Wallace Allen is editor of the Idaho Business Review.

About Anne Wallace Allen

Anne Wallace Allen is the editor of the Idaho Business Review.