by Cindy McMahon, Reynolds District Representative, Buncombe County School Board
This time of year, it’s often on our minds: WEATHER. But have you ever wondered how snow day decisions are made for our local schools? Here’s your peek at what happens while you’re still sleeping:
It all starts at 4 am, if not before. Tommy Stotesbury, who is in charge of Parts and Dispatch and has been with the Buncombe County Schools Transportation Department for eighteen years, knows his stuff and he knows the right people.
Stotesbury is at work very early, checking the forecast and the radar, and making calls to key school transportation officials from nearby counties. If the storm is heading to us from the south, he’s on the phone with Henderson County. If it’s coming from due west, he’s talking to his contact in Haywood. And if it’s the typical “border counties” storm, he’s in touch with the right person in Madison County. He knows what’s heading our way.
By 4:15, BCS bus mechanics are on the road and using their two-way radios to let Stotesbury know the status of roads in all six Buncombe County school districts. And around 4:30, Superintendent Tony Baldwin and Assistant Superintendent Joe Hough arrive at the Transportation Department. It’s decision time.
Buncombe County is different from the nearby counties in that we have multiple districts and weather can vary widely across our broad area. If conditions are bad in only one or two of the districts, Dr. Baldwin and his advisors can make a “split decision” and open schools in the unaffected districts. But if three or more districts need to close then policy dictates that they close all of Buncombe County Schools.
The final decision is made by 5:30 am at the latest, and ideally earlier. In the next half-hour, Stotesbury contacts all the radio stations, Hough contacts the TV stations, and Stacia Harris, Communications Director, gets the information out via social media, email, websites, and automated phone calls.
Some days, though, it’s not so clear cut. It may be that the morning sun will melt off enough ice to make roads safe. Or perhaps the roads are mostly fine, but we need to be sure that bus drivers can see the roads in the light of day just in case there may still be some black ice in the shady spots. Or maybe a storm is just skirting our area, and more time is needed to know whether it will be safe to open schools. In these cases, Baldwin, Hough and the Transportation Department may call for a two-hour delay.
Cold weather may necessitate a school delay, even when there has been no precipitation at all. The diesel fuel in the buses begins to gel when the temperature is in the single digits overnight, especially after a weekend when they have not been cranked recently. A delay gives mechanics time to get out and get the buses cranked and warmed up, and students are not left standing at the bus stop waiting for a bus that won’t start.
Probably the worst situation is when an unexpected storm arrives and school is already in session. In this case, the first step is to bus students from the satellite programs (Community High School, Nesbitt Discovery Academy, and others) back to the schools in their home districts, since these students are always bussed by way of their district schools. Early dismissal is then announced and buses, parents, and student drivers hit the roads.
Fonda Durner, Transportation Director for Buncombe County Schools, always emphasizes safety first: “Any decision made is to ensure the safety of children across the whole entire district, as well as the families and school employees, who have to stay at school until the last student has left.”
Questions? Please email firstname.lastname@example.org.