Monticello superintendent clarifies school closure decision

The news of Minnesota schools remaining closed Tuesday due to the cold started coming in fast and furious Monday morning.

The Anoka-Hennepin district, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Elk River and others called off Tuesday classes early in the day Monday, leading to heavy speculation on whether Monticello would follow suit.

By early afternoon the district announced they would remain closed Tuesday as well, but on Tuesday night Superintendent Jim Johnson told the school board this turned out to be the wrong decision.

When deciding whether to close or delay school, the district looks to policy number 531, its extreme weather and emergency closing policy, he said.

This policy gives emergency school closing authority to the superintendent. To make a decision, Johnson said he consults with many other parties such as the bus company, the national weather service and other local superintendents.

When bad roads are at issue he and other staff members get up as early as 3:30 or 4 a.m. to drive the roads themselves and to consult a number of different weather sources.

He said Monticello’s school district is very wide from east to west, and they need to assess safety in all areas, especially on the western edge of the district with its windy, infrequently traveled roads. “It’s not something we take lightly,” Johnson said. “Our goal everyday is to try to get kids to school as long as we can get them here safely. I will tell you this. I didn’t make the right decision.”

When it came to this week’s ‘polar vortex’, Johnson said it was the right decision to cancel school on Monday. As for Tuesday, he said media hype, the news of so many schools closing and the pressure from parents wanting to know the district’s decision early in the day led to Tuesday’s school closure.

“In all honesty, I didn’t follow my own criteria and I didn’t follow all the things we had in place for a long time, and a number of school districts did the same thing. In hindsight we should have been here today, probably two hours late,” he said.

“The conversation all weekend was ‘what’s going to happen Tuesday-they’re forecasting the same thing,’” board member Bill Spartz said. “You’re in a no-win situation.”

Johnson said it makes him nervous that the district has already lost two school days due to weather by early January. He said the school board has the power to reschedule days lost due to inclement weather or other emergencies, if necessary, by adding additional days to the end of the school year.

In the future, Johnson said he will make sure to take a step back from the media hype and the new expectations that have been set about how early to make a closing decision, while still being mindful of parents’ need to plan for changes. He also stressed that parents always have the choice to keep their child home from school if they feel it’s not safe for them to go.

Gov. Mark Dayton extended winter break for students across Minnesota Friday, Jan. 3, when he announced that all public K-12 schools would be closed statewide Monday, Jan. 6. All classes and activities were canceled. “The safety of Minnesota’s school children must be our first priority,” Dayton said in a press release. “I have made this decision to protect all our children from the dangerously cold temperatures now forecasted for next Monday. I encourage Minnesotans of all ages to exercise caution in these extreme weather conditions.”

Minnesota’s governors have rarely asserted their authority to “authorize the commissioner of education to alter school schedules, curtail school activities or order schools closed,” as Minnesota statutes allow. The last time the state ordered school closings was 1997, when Gov. Arne Carlson called off school for extreme cold one January day. During the 1990s, Carlson closed schools three times.

However, earlier this week, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius informed district superintendents and charter school directors that the decision about school cancellations for Tuesday is up to individual school districts.

When faced with such a decision, school superintendents monitor temperatures and local conditions closely, and are prepared to communicate with families so they can plan accordingly.

Johnson told the Monticello Times in a earlier interview that in the nine years he has been Monticello superintendent, he could only recall one other time where local schools had been closed two days in a row. Those closures were snow-related, Johnson said.

“I know my predecessor, Superintendent Mike Benedetto, closed school for two days because of fog, but that was back in 2000-2001, in the spring,” he said.

Johnson said he was a district principal at that time, and remembered coming out of his driveway. “You could not see at all, he said. “It was just terrible.”

Keeping a close eye on the weather forecast and what other school districts are doing plays an important part in a district’s decision to close, Johnson added.

“I was thinking about it since last Friday” Johnson said Monday afternoon in a phone interview. “We were looking at closing Monday and Tuesday, given the extended forecast. We came to work Monday knowing sometime early that afternoon, we would want to make a decision about Tuesday.” Slick road conditions were a worry at that time. “We know that when it’s really cold, [treatment] chemicals aren’t going to do a lot,” Johnson said.

Hoglund Transportation Safety Directory Kari Kounkel addressed cold and winter weather-related transportation-related concerns in an email. Hoglund Transportation, Inc., provides transportation to students in the Monticello School District.

Founded by Stuart and Arleen Hoglund in 1947, the company is now owned by Gordon Hoglund; his daughter and son-in-law, Kari and Joe Kounkel, joined the company in the mid-1980s and perform most management responsibilities.

“We can always start buses, and despite some of the mechanical issues, we can get kids to school,” Kounkel said. “Our fuel is rated to 30 below zero real temperature. Wind chill has zero impact on equipment. We have air dryers, so the air lines in our buses won’t freeze.  And without getting technical, mechanical ‘stuff’ just doesn’t work as well when it’s exceptionally cold, so stop arms sometimes won’t retract.” Kounkel said an added concern is having kids standing outside when there’s the potential for buses to arrive later as the morning progresses.

“The human factor is, of course, the biggest worry,” she said. “We have to open the door at every stop, so buses aren’t warming houses and not all students dress appropriately.  If a school bus is late, we wonder whether a student actually takes shelter if the parent isn’t there to call them back into the house.”

According to Kounkel, Hoglund has a good system to manage any stalled buses or those having mechanical issues), but it takes 15 minutes to dispatch a new bus and a mechanic. “Other bus drivers will assist by picking up town stops after making their own stops at the schools, so by the time everything is flowing again, most students are not even late for school,” she said.

Problems can occur when a 15-minute window expires and a bus isn’t moving. School buses don’t produce heat when they’re not moving, Kounkel said. “Gelling fuel can be an issue. That happens when buses go really slow. We live in Minnesota, so we manage the weather and the things under our control.  When it’s to the point where the vulnerability of the students is a major concern, it’s time to close school.”

Johnson said earlier this week that the Monticello School Board will decide when district students will make up the two lost instructional days.

“We’ll wait to see how many days we lose by mid-February and then make a decision,” he said. “We have quite a few more hours than required by the state, so we may not make up all days lost, but that decision will be made by the board at a later date.”

(Editor’s Note: Monticello Times Managing Editor Tim Hennagir contributed material and interviews to this story.)

Freelancer Meghan Gutzwiller covers education and the Monticello School District.