Keith Dixon: No mystery involved in school closings

I think there's an air of mystery surrounding the process for determining when to close schools due to severe weather. I've been responsible for calling snow days for approximately 30 years, and it's something I take seriously because it involves...

I think there's an air of mystery surrounding the process for determining when to close schools due to severe weather. I've been responsible for calling snow days for approximately 30 years, and it's something I take seriously because it involves the safety of children.

Some people think superintendents wake up at 6 a.m., look out the bedroom window and decide. The process actually takes several hours, involves gathering data, talking with many people, and in the end, taking a deep breath and making the decision you feel is best for most children in your district.

The superintendents from Superior, Proctor, Hermantown and myself generally start the process the night before with phone calls to the National Weather Service (NWS) and conversations with our transportation staff. The next morning we get up around 3:30 a.m., look at current conditions and forecasts, talk again with the NWS, and our transportation personnel hit the road for a first hand look at road conditions. We may also check in with MnDOT and the State Highway Patrol.

The Duluth district encompasses about 337 square miles, and conditions can vary substantially from neighborhood to neighborhood. When people call and ask, "Do you know what the roads are like up here," I can say "Yes, I do," because we take that into consideration.

We gather and review data and then the four superintendents use it to make a decision we feel is in the best interest of the majority of our students. We try to do that no later than 5:30 a.m.


Some-times we decide we'll all make the same call; sometimes we don't. Making the decision can be especially difficult when one part of our area has heavy snow and another part lighter snow. It's challenging, too, when conditions and forecasts change regularly between 3:30 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. The call to close schools at 5:30 a.m. may look good based on the 5:30 a.m. forecast and conditions. It may look questionable before the end of the day if forecasts and conditions change.

Note I said we make decisions for the majority -- it may not be a decision that meets the needs of all families. So in Duluth, if families choose to keep children home for safety reasons during severe cold or snow, that's an excused absence. When it's snowing, some parents choose to drive their children to school themselves; some will wait at the bus stop with their children when it's snowing or cold. We appreciate their partnership in the important task of getting children to and from school safely.

A few parents I've talked to suggest late starts or early dismissals, or perhaps just closing schools in areas where the roads are bad and leaving the rest open. Those are ideas we'll continue to discuss. Logistically, they're not easy things to implement for either parents or schools, but perhaps there's a way to get it done without putting parents in a bind or sending children home to empty houses.

I hope this takes away some of the mystery. People are always welcome to contact us if it doesn't.

By the way, if you're up at 3:30 a.m., and we've got a snowstorm on the way and you remember to, please think of us and send along your best thoughts and wishes. When we're preparing to make a snow day decision, every little bit helps.

2006-07 budget note

One of our most important responsibilities is helping the school board prepare a budget for each school year. As community members, you can take part in the process.

In January, we'll share information about the state of the budget and take ideas you may have, both for new programs and places to reduce the budget.


In February, we'll have a first draft budget for you to look at and provide feedback; we'll use that information to "tweak" the first draft.

In March, you'll have an opportunity to look at the updated budget and provide additional comment.

We'll take a final budget to the school board for approval in April. This will help us determine staffing by May, so teachers will know where they'll be teaching in September, before they leave for the summer.

Please help us keep you in the loop by checking our meeting schedules and taking advantage of opportunities to learn more about what we're doing and how you can take part.

Check our Web site at , check newsletters. If you have an opportunity, keep an eye on the media and keep an ear open from other parents and community members. If you have questions, please call, write or e-mail. Thank you in advance for your feedback and support.

Duluth Superintendent of Schools Keith Dixon can be reached at keith.dixon@duluth . or 218-336-8752 or for general information call 218-336-8735.

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