Harford County Public Schools parents flooded online comment forums last week with their anger over what appeared to be a last-minute decision Feb. 3 by school officials to open schools on time and then send children home two and a half hours later in the middle of a snowstorm.
Despite the earlier outrage and the likelihood of another major snowstorm forecast to hit the county sometime Wednesday, only a handful of parents appeared at Monday's Board of Education meeting to comment about weather closing decisions.
Some speakers asked to be included in any changes the school system might make to inclement weather procedures, while others continued to rail about bus service cuts that played into the prior week's fiasco.
One parent thanked bus drivers for getting children home safely in snowy and icy conditions.
"Thank you for caring and protecting our children on the buses, daily, but especially on Monday [Feb. 3]," Diane Doran, a parent of a North Harford High and North Harford Middle student, said during the public comment portion of the meeting.
Although the school board did not discuss creating a separate zone for northern Harford County, which experienced lower temperatures and greater amounts of snow than the rest of the county last week, interim Superintendent Barbara Canavan instructed her top aides to revisit the zone issue, which prior school administrations have rejected.
Despite a threat of snow, students were sent to school on time on the morning of Feb. 3, only to be sent home 2 1/2 hours later, meaning most left their schools during the heaviest part of the storm. Following an overnight ice storm on Feb. 4, schools were closed for the day on Feb. 5 and 6.
Many parents have questioned what some saw as a lack of a clear-cut decision making process on weather delays and closings, but the superintendent's top aides tried to dispel such notions during Monday's board meeting, as they explained in detail the process that led to the most recent decisions that brought criticism.
Magnet buses Snafu
Joe Licata, chief of administration, and Charlie Taibi, director of transportation, acknowledged that mistakes were made on Feb. 3, especially with regard magnet program students who were stuck riding on buses for two to three hours.
Taibi noted eight buses have been removed from magnet school routes as school officials consolidated bus routes and instituted depot stops for magnet students to save money at the beginning of the school year, which meant there were fewer buses to take students home and confusion among students as to what bus they were supposed to be on.
"This was the first time that we implemented this practice and we realize that it does need to be refined and we're working on that now," he said.
He and Licata said they had spoken with a number of frustrated parents. Taibi confirmed in an interview after the board meeting that he had sent an e-mail to a parent, outlining road conditions as he saw them on Feb. 3.
The e-mail was later posted on a Facebook group for parents in the northern part of the county, many of whom in turn criticized it and claimed what they experienced was much worse.
Dominic Trulli of Abingdon, who is a junior in the Science and Mathematics Academy magnet program at Aberdeen High School, said he had expressed concerns earlier in the year about the cutbacks and the depot stops and how they would work in inclement weather.
Dominic said his father was able to pick him up from his depot stop at his neighborhood high school, but he also said he received text messages from friends who were riding on buses for two to three hours.
Mary Archer, who has two children in magnet programs, said her daughter was dropped off near Havre de Grace High School and had to seek shelter with friends at a nearby business.
"Just rescind the busing transportation [changes] for this year," she said. "Return it to where it was before; we didn't have any problems last year."
Board member Joseph Hau proposed restoring the magnet transportation services during budget deliberations Jan. 27, but withdrew his amendment after fellow board members suggested keeping the system as it is until officials can obtain software to determine where more efficiencies can be gained.
At that earlier meeting, Taibi had noted the difficulty in changing back bus routes that were "intermeshed" and the cost of purchasing eight new buses to replaced the ones that were dropped.
Licata and Taibi talked at length Monday about the process they follow and noted their decisions made affect about 500 school buses and nearly 38,000 students in the school system, as well as nearly 5,500 employees.
They said they review weather reports, consult with sheriff's deputies and public works crews about the conditions of the roads, plus county officials in the Emergency Operations Center and officials in neighboring counties about conditions there.
"We receive very detailed information, although it is the weather and sometimes that information is a prediction, an estimate of what is going to occur, " Licata explained.
He said Taibi drives along various Harford County roads to assess their conditions, leaving around 3 a.m. if a storm is expected to hit after sunup.
Taibi said he and his transportation supervisors alert county or state road crews to potential trouble spots and the crews work to get them cleared.
Licata said decisions on whether to open schools two hours late or cancel altogether are made easier when the snow is already on the ground.
He said schools were closed the two days following the Feb. 4-5 ice storm because of conditions that resembled those after a hurricane, with downed trees and power lines – several schools did not have power – and roads that were cut off in places.
"Where it gets a little testy is when the precipitation that is predicted isn't happening," he said.
Licata explained that was the situation facing school officials Feb. 3. A snowstorm that would touch the northern part of the county had been predicted.
When school officials began their assessments, he noted, it was raining steadily.
"Do we kill the day, so to speak, based on that prediction, or do we make the decision to go with the idea that we can close early as we've done many times in the past and at least get some instruction in the day?" Licata said of the decision-making process.
North Harford zone
After last week's problems, northern Harford parents have ramped up talk about a special weather zone, similar to the Hereford Zone established by the Baltimore County school system, could have different dismissal times and school closing procedures than the rest of the county.
Hundreds of parents living in northern Harford have taken to social media to vent their outrage; a Facebook group, "North Harford School Zone" Petition To HCPS," was created in the wake of the Feb. 23., and 2,490 people were members of the group as of Monday night.
"Monday [Feb. 3] is over," Carol Frontera of Whiteford, a mother of three who has one child at North Harford Middle School and one at North Harford Elementary, said during the public comment portion of the board meeting. "We want to help identify whether this was a one-time mistake or the symptom of a bigger problem that should addressed."
Frontera spoke for the northern Harford parents Monday and said she and other residents wanted to "be part of that dialogue" with school officials, staff and bus drivers.
Lora Pangratz of Aberdeen, a Harford Technical High School parent, suggested public school officials coordinate future early dismissals with Harford Community College, to avoid the "gridlock" that resulted when HCC dismissed at the same time Feb. 3 as the neighboring Harford Tech and John Archer School.
She also asked school officials to consider the southern part of the county if they craft a northern Harford zone.
"Please do not diminish any inclement weather that occurs in the southern areas, or outside of that zone area, and make those of us who live there feel any less important because we only got 2 inches versus 3, 4 or 5 inches in another part of the county," she said. "It can still cause problems no matter where we are."
Harford County school officials studied the issue in 1994 and 2008, but determined a northern Harford zone would not work.
Canavan, however, told Licata and Taibi to review the previous studies and bring their findings back to the school board, in order to discuss the "feasibility" of such a zone.
"I think we owe that to the community and to the kids, and I know that you both feel the same way, because we've had this discussion," she told her two aides.