February 12

Snow day decisions start well before storm, central Maine school superintendents say

School chiefs rely on each other, plow truck drivers and meteorologist Russ Murley, a former TV weatherman who tailors his forecast for each district.

By Jesse Scardina jscardina@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

For as long as there has been school, there have been students’ two favorite words: “snow day.”

click image to enlarge

SNOW DAYS: Students board school buses Wednesday at Waterville Senior High School. They may get a break from school this Friday because a snowstorm, predicted to start Thursday afternoon, but that decision will be based on detailed forecasts sought by the superintendent.

Staff photo by David Leaming

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Murley

And with another large winter storm expected to dump a foot or more of snow on central Maine beginning Thursday afternoon, area superintendents are debating whether there will be a delay, a cancellation or a normal school day.

The process involves more than just checking an hourly forecast. Superintendents get input from everyone from plow drivers and neighboring school district superintendents to a former Maine TV weatherman who is the go-to guy for school administrators many in the area.

Dominic DePatsy, superintendent of Pittsfield-based School Administrative District 53, said making the decision to cancel school starts several days before a storm hits.

Aside from his transportation director, he usually calls nearby superintendents Greg Potter, of the Newport-based Regional School Unit 19, and Heather Perry, of Unity-based RSU 3.

“It’s good to see what other school districts are doing,” DePatsy said. “You don’t want to be the only one who didn’t call off school.”

The conversations with neighboring superintendents are useful because “they force us to look beyond ourselves,” said Patricia Hopkins, superintendent of Gardiner-based SAD 11.

“A lot of our staff travel back and forth and live in towns where maybe road conditions aren’t as up to par as other communities,” Hopkins said. She said that the district’s director of operations stays in contact with the National Weather Service office in Gray about notable forecasts.

The weather service predicts about 10 to 14 inches of snow in the Waterville and Augusta areas, starting early in the afternoon, with continuous snowfall until late Friday morning.

“It’s a classic coastal storm, or nor’easter, whatever you want to call it,” said Mike Kiftner, a meteorologist for the weather service.

TAILORED FORECASTS

Several districts also rely on hourly weather reports tailored to their corresponding towns from Russ Murley, operations manager for Precision Weather, a nationwide company based in Portland and Syracuse, N.Y., that provides weather reports customized to specific regions or towns.

“We help provide an extra layer of service,” Murley said in a phone interview Wednesday afternoon. He said about a dozen districts in the state use the service.

Murley was busy Wednesday keeping his clientele — which includes school districts in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, as well as railroad companies, ski resorts and highway departments — updated on the coming storm.

“I sent out an email this morning with general start times and snow amounts,” Murley said. He said he talks with each school district at a pre-determined time, when Murley talks with a superintendent personally.

“If we’re anticipating a storm, at about 4:20 a.m. Murley gives me a call and updates me on the weather,” DePatsy said. “It’s usually about a minute-long phone call.”

The reports Murley provides the superintendents are tailored specifically for the towns, which each have their specific potential problems, he said.

“Skowhegan, for example, has a lot of dirt roads, so that’s a different beast,” he said.

He’s been a meteorologist in Maine for about 25 years, including on WMTW-TV, Channel 8.

“We know the districts and what the roads will be like,” he said. “Our forecast is exactly for that district. We’ll tell you it will change from snow to rain in Pittsfield at 10:30 in the morning.”

Some districts solicit Murley’s advice about whether they should cancel school, while others just seek the detailed, tailored information.

THE PLOW KNOWS

At Skowhegan-based RSU 54, Superintendent Brent Colbry said in addition to working with Murley and checking the National Weather Service, Colbry gets in contact with area plow drivers to get updated road conditions.

(Continued on page 2)

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