Mayor Emily Larson called a press conference Wednesday morning to acknowledge "that we have not fulfilled our commitment on this snowstorm this time for neighborhoods and residents."
"I was raised that you step into shortcomings, and you own them, and you let people know that you will strive to do better," she said.
Four days after a Saturday night snowstorm blanketed the city with 21.7 inches of snow, portions of the city remain impassable, forcing the closure of the Myers-Wilkins and Lowell elementary schools for a third straight day.
Larson also acknowledged "that there is a major gap in what we were able to accomplish before this morning, and that was the East and Central Hillside neighborhoods. Because of that, Superintendent (Bill) Gronseth had to make a decision to not have school."
Reflecting on that decision, Gronseth said: "It was a matter of balancing the safety of our students as well as getting our kids back to school and we felt comfortable enough to open the rest of our schools."
Gronseth told the News Tribune that as of 4:30 a.m. Wednesday, the road to Myers-Wilkins, at 1027 N. Eighth Ave. E., was not plowed, and many other roads within the school’s boundaries remained plugged with snow.
"It's been a very difficult situation through and through. We thought it would be completed in time to open school, but I was told late last night that may not be the case," he said.
Gronseth said Lowell had been cleared of snow, but because Myers-Wilkins and Lowell have a student exchange program, both schools were affected.
There are 85 students who live within Myers-Wilkins' boundaries who attend Lowell — 41 in Spanish immersion, 12 in Ojibwe immersion and 32 in traditional classes. Conversely, 37 students who live within Lowell's boundaries attend Myers-Wilkins, which draws about 80% of its students from low-income families.
Gronseth said once the roads are plowed to the school, district staff and contractors hired for snow removal will begin clearing snow from the school property.
When asked why Myers-Wilkins wasn’t made a priority, Larson said multiple things occurred that resulted in that area not being done.
“People are right to be angry about (school being closed). I’ve been very clear about what my expectations are on how we do snow clearing, and that did not meet the expectations I have for us as a city,” Larson said. “It’s really on us in not getting that area done and not keeping with the values of what I have presented as a community and what our residents can expect to rely on with me.”
The mayor said it was especially disheartening that lower-income neighborhoods will be some of the last to be cleared of snow.
"I need you to know that that is actually in stark contrast to our values as an organization. We have striven time and time again to show up equitably and fairly across the city, especially in neighborhoods that need us to show up in really big ways. That includes for me, the neighborhoods of the East and Central Hillside, of which I am also a resident," she said.
Larson said the city will be looking at whether it can bring more staff and equipment to bear in future storms. She said the city will consider how it might better deploy those resources in a strategic fashion, as well. Larson also talked about creating an online tracking system that could provide residents with real-time information about the progress of the city's snow-clearing efforts.
"If we had more trucks and more staff, we would have used them in this case. There's no doubt in my mind. But I know that we were fully deployed, that at any given time when we were at a full work shift, we had 40 machines out on the road, and we had 40 people working those machines. So, that is actually a pretty robust response," she said.
As for suggestions that Duluth should have sought snow removal assistance from other entities, Larson said that wasn't really an option because crews for the state and neighboring jurisdictions were dealing with their own challenges in the wake of the recent winter storm.
"I can talk about some of what we will be doing differently moving forward, and I also know at the end of the day, sometimes the frustration is just the frustration. And so I don't expect the details of what has made this complicated to necessarily be a balm that soothes families that are being significantly inconvenienced," she said.
"But the combination of a holiday weekend of machinery that was really strained and stressed, that was functioning and then broke several times with the weight of the snow, with the compaction of the snow, the degree of blowing and drifting. This was a very different snowstorm than the ones I have experienced the last four years. And while we are a climate that is used to experiencing snowfalls and extreme weather, the combination of things made this very difficult," Larson said.
Duluth encourages people to report any unplowed streets and alleys to the city so that crews can be deployed to finish their work. Residents can call 218-730-5100 or visit duluthmn.gov/snow.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from Bill Gronseth, superintendent of Duluth schools, and additional comments from Mayor Emily Larson.