Failure to close schools during snowstorm irks everyone

Superintendent says decision was a mistake

By Tom Gresham
Observer staff

Brian O’Regan readily owns up to it: He made a mistake.

The superintendent of the Chittenden South Supervisory Union said he should have cancelled classes Feb. 10 when a snowstorm made roads treacherous and closed most Chittenden County schools. O’Regan said he makes the final decision on snow cancellations and simply made the wrong one.

“It was not a good call on my end,” O’Regan said. “I usually err on the side of being overly conservative, but I did not this time. I made a bad decision given the situation.”

The Burlington and South Burlington school districts remained open, but elsewhere classrooms were empty. Schools in Colchester, as well as those in the Chittenden East and Chittenden Central supervisory unions were closed for the day.

O’Regan said CSSU received many complaints from people representing “every possible constituency” — from staff to students to parents. Some of the callers were animated and frustrated that school had not been cancelled, O’Regan said.

Danielle O’Brien, chairwoman of Families as Partners, Williston’s parent-teacher organization, declined to comment on whether any concerns or complaints were forwarded through FAP.

O’Regan said the feedback the supervisory union received about the decision was helpful. The comments will be used by CSSU officials as they consider refining the process used to make decisions about holding classes in inclement weather.

“We are looking at the protocol a little bit to see if we can get a better idea of the conditions in these situations,” O’Regan said. “We’re going to work through our decision-making process to try to avoid this happening again.”

O’Regan said there were a number of questions from the public about the process school officials use to determine whether to hold classes. O’Regan said the decision to keep school open on Feb. 10 was made at approximately 5:30 a.m. It was finalized after a series of discussions with various school and municipal road officials. The process and criteria used were the same on any other school day when weather conditions raise safety concerns.

O’Regan said the day started with Ken Martin, the supervisory union’s transportation supervisor, and Bob Mason, the chief of operations, talking at about 4:30 a.m. about road conditions and the weather forecast.

Martin and Mason spoke to road crews from Williston, Shelburne, Hinesburg and Charlotte, the towns in the supervisory union, to get their impression of the roads. Martin and Mason were not only interested in the current road conditions, O’Regan said, but in the projected conditions for 7:30 a.m. and 8 a.m., the period when students are being transported to school.

The school officials then consulted with O’Regan. He said that CSSU officials thought the road crews would be able to keep the roads clear and safe, despite the snow.

“Obviously, that turned out not to be the case,” O’Regan said. “The roads were not in great shape.”

O’Regan said he tries to make the decision on whether or not to cancel classes between 5 a.m. and 5:30 a.m. because some staff begin to leave for school in the period. When school bus drivers arrive at approximately 5:45 a.m., O’Regan said, he might revisit the decision one final time before buses head out on the roads.

O’Regan said he took the weather forecast into account last week when he decided to hold classes. Although the forecast called for snowfall all day, O’Regan said he believed municipal road crews would be able to keep the roads clear.

O’Regan said he typically checks to see what other districts are doing, particularly Chittenden East, which includes Essex Junction and has geography similar to CSSU. But O’Regan did not check with Chittenden East during last week’s snowstorm.

O’Regan said he began to regret his decision when he drove to the CSSU office in Shelburne that morning. He said he drove through Williston, Hinesburg and Shelburne to test the roads and found both Williston and Shelburne especially slick.

O’Regan said he heard reports of some vehicles traveling to and from the schools skidding off the road, “but fortunately no one got hurt.” Williston Police Officer Jon Marcoux said there were a only a few accidents in Williston and most came in the evening.

O’Regan noted the supervisory union’s bus drivers transported students without incident.

“I think the bus drivers really deserve kudos for the driving they did with some very challenging road conditions,” O’Regan said. “They kept their focus on safety and getting from point A to point B. They did a great job.”