School defends weather decision

First Posted: 1/15/2009

LUMBERTON -- Interim school Superintendent Alphonzo McRae and school board members are defending McRae's decision to close local schools 30 minutes after the bell rang because of Thursday's snowfall. But, in hindsight, some say that a delay might have been a wiser decision.
The decision stirred confusion and flustered many parents, who had to return to pick up their children minutes after they had dropped them off. School was canceled today, but students must make up the days later this year.
McRae said he didn't initially cancel school because the snow didn't begin falling until an hour after bus drivers began their route. He said that he spent most of Wednesday night and early Thursday morning taking phone calls for advice and, later, listening to callers who were full of questions.
McRae met with his staff Wednesday afternoon to discuss the weather forecast. At 4 a.m. Thursday, he said, he talked with Transportation Director Raymond Cummings.
“Mr. Cummings had spoken with his contacts at DOT and he was informed that everything in the county was clear,” McRae said.
At 5 a.m., McRae said, he talked again with several staff members who live in different parts of the county.
“We checked with folks who are in the know and we were watching the weather station. To some degree, they were anticipating that the snow was supposed to come in at 12 midnight (Thursday). At 6 a.m., we were pretty much clear. We appeared, at that time, to be in a position to move forward with the regular time.”
The earliest buses are on the road between 5:30 and 5:45, he said. Once it began to snow about 6:30, it was too late to turn the buses around, he said.
“At that time, we were working toward getting all the buses to school,” he said. “We basically made that decision based on experience. We've done all the same things in the past. Possibly, in this situation, we should have waited. It caught us in a position that isn't popular at this point in time.”
Some board members say they received calls from parents who complained about the decision.
“I have mixed feelings about the situation,” Terry Smith said. “It was a tough decision because, at 7 a.m., there was nothing falling in some parts of Lumberton. But if I had to make a decision, I would have probably erred in the other direction, because we have known about this storm for two or three days. I am not trying to beat up the administration, but they should have started school two or three hours late.”
Board Chairman Mike Smith said that McRae was forced to make a “judgment call. I am not going to second-guess the administration. That is what we hired them to do.”
Robert Deese said that it was a tough decision, especially considering that some parents leave for work at 6 a.m. and “need to know right then” if school is open or closed.
“In hindsight a two-hour delay would have allowed more time to see how much snow was going to accumulate,” Deese said. “Any decision that is made, there is always going to be somebody that is unhappy. It's a no-win situation.”
James DeFreece said that he fully supports the decision.
“That is the superintendent's call and I support it,” DeFreece said. “He made the decision based on the weather report and conditions at that time.”
Cold again tonight
Most of the snow melted during the day Thursday. But it was followed by bitter cold weather that will remain tonight, despite a day of sunshine. Thermometers fell to 14 this morning, but a wind chill made it feel like 1 degree at one point. But Richard Anthony, the meterologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Wilmington, said that winds will be calmer tonight and that wind chill won't be a factor, although he expects a low of 10 to 15.
“It will slowly warm up and we'll be back into the lower 40s by Saturday and Sunday,” Anthony said.
There was a rash of accidents before most of the snow melted Thursday afternoon. The total number wasn't available. Maj. Robert Ivey of the county Sheriff's Office said that most of the roads were clear last night, although there were patches of ice on some of the back roads. But, he said, there were not a lot of accidents. No one was available for comment at the local state Highway Patrol office.
CP&L, which had 11,354 power outages in the Wilmington area, had only three in the Lumberton area, according to a spokesman. Lumbee River Electric Membership Corp. reported 300 power outages, all in Scotland County. A spokesman for Lumberton said there were no power outages in the city.

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