LEWISTON — While dozens of southern and western Maine schools canceled classes during Monday's snowstorm, at least four area school systems did not, causing thousands of children in Lewiston, Auburn, Poland and Turner to slog through the snow, raising the ire of their parents.
"What bothered me was when a normal 15-minute ride to school, my wife bringing my daughter, turned into a 50-minute ride, and when my wife said that my daughter seemed scared and that they saw many cars off the road," said Joshua Shea, Auburn city councilor and father of two. "I know the School Department has a process that they go through, but there needs to be a level of erring on the side of caution, no matter what."
School superintendents are responsible for calling off classes. Many in the area did cancel school last Monday for weather that was supposed to cause icing — but instead caused rain. This Monday, superintendents in Lewiston, Auburn, RSU 16 in Poland and SAD 52 in Turner decided to open school during what was supposed to be a short, slight snowstorm — but instead turned into a daylong event.
Although children and staff members got to school safely and there were no morning bus accidents, Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin admitted she should have canceled school.
"It's not an easy decision, and you go with what you have for information at the time," she said. "We can all say 'could have,' 'should have,' and I take responsibility for taking the information and making the decision. I was very thankful students and staff got here safely."
Area school leaders typically start considering school cancellations at 4:30 a.m. In Lewiston, Auburn and SAD 52, superintendents talk with weather forecasters, gather information from road crews and transportation directors, and confer with other area superintendents before making their decision.
On Monday, they said, forecasters predicted the snow would taper off soon and the roads would be fine. So by 5:30 a.m., they decided school was on.
But by 6:15 a.m., the snow hadn't slowed. And it wasn't going to that morning.
"Around 6:20 a.m., we were having a conversation. But I said 'by the time we call it off, we're almost putting people at hazard,'" Grondin said.
Teachers and older students were already well on their way to school.
Some parents were incredulous that school was open, especially after it was closed last week during rain. Soon after Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster tweeted that school would be open, he received a handful of tweets back, all from people questioning the decision.
"No school last week because of slush," wrote one person. "School today with snow & freezing rain. (W)hat's wrong with this picture?"
Shea complained about the lack of a snow day on his Facebook page, saying in part, "The formula (for when to call off school) should be simple . . . common sense . . . and that's one part of the formula I can tell wasn't used today." His two posts, including one about a conversation he had Monday with Grondin, quickly received 40 "likes" and 24 comments.
Grondin, Webster and SAD 52 Superintendent Henry Aliberti Jr. all received phone calls from upset parents. All three said they understood the parents' feelings.
"These concerns are all legitimate, and that's the balancing act a superintendent has to play," Webster said. "Anytime there's snow, it's more hazardous walking or driving . . . but is the presence of snow pushing the safety concern over the top, or is it something that, with just normal winter prudence, should be fine? And that's a fine line."
RSU 16's superintendent could not be reached for comment.
The three superintendents who did speak said parents can keep their children home any time they feel the roads are unsafe. That would be considered an excused absence.
But Shea has a problem with doing that.
"As a parent, I know that when my child misses a day being sick, if it's a test day or if there's a lot of instruction going on, especially at the junior high or high school level, missing a day can be like missing a week," he said. "Yes, there's the option of keeping my child home, but school's still going on. And when school's going on, I should have my child there."
He spoke with Grondin on Monday about the snow day situation.
"I don't envy the position of the superintendent having to take a bunch of information and really make a judgement call," he said. "But it was clearly the wrong call today. And being clearly the wrong call, it's a chance to reflect how the process could be better made."
Grondin agreed that Auburn could have done things differently, including starting late and waiting to see if the snow continued. Although the school system has historically shied away from late starts and early dismissals during storms, the School Committee last spring gave Grondin the go-ahead to start classes late or end them early. The problem is, the Lewiston School Committee didn't allow it for its city schools — and Lewiston and Auburn typically make school closure decisions together.
Grondin plans to return to her School Committee now and ask if members want her to start late or end early even when Lewiston won't. A late start last week likely would have ended with school resuming, rather than complete cancellation. A late start this Monday likely would have resulted in cancellation.
If Auburn does move away from joint cancellation, there will be other decisions to make, including what to do about Auburn students who attend the Lewiston Regional Technical Center and how best to inform Auburn parents about the change.
"We're really going to have to educate the community because they're used to seeing Lewiston and automatically thinking Auburn," Grondin said.
In the meantime, Lewiston, Auburn, SAD 52 and RSU 16 will likely have another chance for a snow day. Soon.
"There's going to be rising temperatures with sleet and freezing rain during that turnover," Webster said. "I'm very concerned about travel conditions (Tuesday) morning."