Bad Weather, Big Financial Headaches for Schools

By Glenn Cook

Mike Armstrong thought he had seen it all during his 35 years in education. He has been a teacher, building-level administrator, director of two state special education programs, and a leader in helping to build Qatar’s system for serving children with special needs. For the past four-plus years, he has been superintendent of the small eastern Kentucky district where he started his career.

However, he says, “I don’t think anyone could have been prepared for something like this.”

“This” was the severe winter weather that forced the Lawrence County Schools to close for 34 days between the winter break and mid-March. The district’s 2,400 students were in school for only five days in January, thanks to a series of snowstorms and severe winter cold that blasted much of the nation.

Lawrence County, which borders West Virginia, was one of the most hard hit, but it was not alone in its struggles to keep schools open. Even in traditionally cold-weather districts, which rarely close during the winter months, schools were shut down because of severe temperatures.

Given the regimented, cyclical nature of school calendars, disruptions of this magnitude come at a cost to districts, employees, students, and parents. To offset Mother Nature’s unpredictable nature, school boards typically pad the calendars with extra days to ensure that instruction can be completed in time for state testing. But when the snow piles up, as it has this year, breaks are cancelled, school days and years are extended, and everyone feels the strain.

“When you’re making a decision to close schools, test scores are third on the list, if not lower,” says Joshua Goodman, an assistant professor of public policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Education. “The first is safety for the kids and your staff, and the second is the fact that schools watch students while parents go to work. You can’t keep a school open just for testing.”

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