School closings a matter of safety

Tom Dunn - Contributing Columnist

In a recent letter to the editor titled, “Too many school delays, closings,” the author expressed dissatisfaction with the number of school closings and delays the Troy City School District has had this winter. She raised some points in her letter, some valid and others not, that I would like to address as someone who was once responsible for making these decisions during my time as superintendent of the Troy City Schools. Since the letter was written only as the decisions have impacted children, I will address only that side of the issue.

The person sitting in any superintendent’s chair is responsible for the safety of the children attending his or her schools. In Troy, this meant it was my job to protect nearly 4,500 students. The number of students varies from district to district, but I’ve not met a single superintendent who does not take this responsibility for student safety seriously. Anyone who has sat in that seat understands where fingers will be pointed if, God forbid, a child is injured or killed in an accident if school is in session when roads are hazardous, or even if they are iffy. In addition to students who ride on our buses, we also know that many of our teenagers drive to school, and they are also impacted by what we decide to do. Even though it is not our decision to allow them to drive to school, we are well aware of where the finger will point if they are involved in an accident.

The author of the letter suggested that parents have the right to make the responsible decision regarding sending their children to school. She may be correct, but it doesn’t work that way in reality. Almost universally, parents follow the lead of the superintendent. If school is in session, their kids come to school, and that’s how we approach our decision.

The author expressed concern that private schools, preschools, and other programs follow the lead of the Troy City Schools. If Troy closes, they close. That is not universally true, but even if it were, that factor is nowhere on the decision tree with respect to closing or not. Nor should it be. Safety is.

She complained that, in the case of Friday’s closing, “And we’re closed because of a few slick spots west of town?”

In fact, if school buses and private automobiles were driving on those roads, and they were hazardous enough to cause an accident, the answer may well be, “Yes.”

During my tenure as superintendent of Troy, I once made the mistake of following the advice of the letter writer by not being cautious enough in an inclement weather situation. It occurred when bad weather moved in mid-morning, and I decided the roads would be okay if we dismissed at our normal time. I was wrong.

The result of my inaction was that a school bus slid off a country road and stranded a bunch of kids until we could transfer them to another bus. It didn’t matter that the roads in town were clear. The bus wasn’t in town. Thankfully, no one was injured, but our students were not delivered to their homes until well after their normal delivery time, so many parents were panic-stricken. The parents of the affected children were not upset with themselves for not coming to school early to pick up their children, as the letter’s author seemed to suggest they would be. They were upset with ME. They felt I had let them down by not releasing school early. It was MY fault. What a miserable feeling!

Now, the letter writer may point to the fact that no one was hurt, so no harm, no foul. Sorry, no.

The letter’s author wrote that we are sending the wrong message when we don’t send kids in snowy or bone-chilling weather because doing so simply shows them that if something is difficult, we just don’t do it. Perhaps she is correct, but I am quite certain that lesson would be lost if an accident occurred while a superintendent was trying to teach his or her kids to “toughen up.” Parents can feel free to teach that lesson.

Finally, when criticizing the decision to delay school, the author asked if it is really going to be that much warmer in two hours? Perhaps. Perhaps not. But giving road crews two additional hours to clear snow and ice from roads often makes a huge difference in road safety. That is the only reason those delays are called.

In closing, there is not a superintendent alive who would not willingly give up the responsibility of driving the roads at 4:30 in the morning to make weather calls to any parent who would like to assume it. But be forewarned. Making decisions for thousands of kids and their families is a far different proposition than making decisions for one or two of your own.

Tom Dunn

Contributing Columnist

Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.

Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.