Wacky winter weather plays havoc with school schedules

What’s going on with the weather? Find out what the government’s meteorologist – located on NE 122nd Avenue – has to say. And, take a behind-the-scenes look at what school superintendents go through every morning when winter weather is uncertain …

Should school be open or not? That’s the question Parkrose Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Karen Fischer Gray faces early in the day, on every stormy, winter morning.

Story and photos by David F. Ashton
While the TV meteorologists grin and giggle their way through winter weather forecasts, school superintendents fret and frown when icy winds bring the threat of snow and freezing rain to their districts.

Dr. Karen Fischer Gray, Superintendent of the Parkrose School District, told us what she’s been going through, when we visited her on December 18 at the district office. On this morning, Parkrose schools were open and running – even though a blizzard hit during the morning hours – and, blanketed the neighborhood with three inches of snow.

“At my home this morning – and I live within my school district – we had clear streets, there was no snow on the grass,” Gray said. “By the time I got to work, it started snowing.”

Up early on ‘snow’ days
On that morning, Gray said she was up at 4:45 a.m. “All of the school superintendents talk among themselves during weather like this. We are not making [school closure] decisions in a vacuum. My first call was to Bob McKean, Superintendent of the Centennial School District. In many cases, we make a uniform decision.”

Also that morning, Gray was checking in with her district’s maintenance and transportation supervisors. “They were out at 4 a.m. checking the streets of Parkrose, trying to see what the weather conditions were. They were perfect; it was 35° and no snow.”

On NE Sacramento Street, just outside Sacramento Elementary School, the wind was blowing in a blizzard of snow – but it, like all Parkrose area schools, were open for the day on December 18. By noon, most of the snow melted and the roads were fairly clear.

Says ‘Safety First’
When making decisions about whether or not to cancel a day of schooling, safety comes first, Gray told us. “Nothing else comes close to assuring the safety of our students.  If we can get students safely to school, we know that they’ll be safe here. We don’t take any foreseeable chances – and we do this to the best of our ability.”

While student safety is paramount, Gray went on, it’s not like there isn’t a price to pay for “snow days off” during the school year.

“We are required to have 405 hours of education for kindergarten students; 810 hours grades one through three; 900 hours of instruction for grades four through eight; and 990 hours of instruction for high school students,” the superintendent explained.

Balancing educational hours – and budget dollars
“The law allows us only 14 hours of closure due to ‘severe weather’ that does not count against these instructional hours,” said Gray. “So far, we are within our hours. If we have any more weather closures, we may add the days onto the end of the school year.  It’s not just about hours; it’s about high-quality instruction. That’s a conversation we will have to have our school board.”

And, a “snow day off” isn’t without monetary cost to the district, either, we learned.

“During bad weather days, we still have to heat and maintain our facilities, and pay our staff,” explained Gray. “There is no financial saving when we close our schools; without a doubt, we do take a hit. Money still has to go out.”

Looking like a Currier & Ives painting, NE 112th Avenue in Parkrose is covered in snow.

Meteorologist explains winter storms
Although many don’t know it, the Portland office for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Weather Service is located in outer East Portland on NE 122nd Avenue, just south of NE Airport Way.

NOAA meteorologist, Tiffani Brown, talked with us about our wacky weather. “Over the past week we had a couple of good storms. Last weekend we had a good arctic blast bringing cool temperatures to outer East Portland.”

The reason for the continuing snow, sleet and cold rain is: “We can’t get rid of the low-level cold air,” Brown commented. “So, as different weather systems come through our area, we have snow, or a combination of snow and rain.”

Because outer East Portland is relatively low-lying and flat, here we’ve seen less snow and freezing rain than the West Hills, the meteorologist added.

East Portland resident Jill Budde says she loves snow days!

A white Christmas?
As it stands – subject to change, of course – Brown said that while we can expect a harsh snow-filled weekend, a warming trend will then come into the area, with a 40º high temperature on Christmas Day – and good ole’ fashioned Oregon rain.

Regardless when you read this, you can always get the up-to-date forecast from the National Weather Service for outer East Portland by CLICKING HERE. Or, enter the Zip Code at the top of the page to see the 7-day forecast for any location in the country.

PDOT gears up a weekend of bad winter weather

A City of Portland truck, equipped with plow and sander, clears the intersection of SE 122nd Avenue and SE Division Street.

Portland Bureau of Transportation spokesperson Cheryl Kuck said their crews have been working hard since Sunday morning, December 14 – and are using the comparatively mild conditions at week’s end to rest up and prepare for what’s next.

“The City is scheduled to return to ‘full callout status’ on Saturday evening to respond to the next storm front predicted to hit the region later Saturday,” stated Kuck. “Temperatures will be dropping well below freezing on Sunday, with hazardous road conditions possibly continuing until mid-week.”

Although road conditions were relatively good Friday, Kuck advised that any sudden drop in temperature will make wet roads slick. “Slushy snow will turn to ice, making conditions hazardous. There is a big difference between 33 degrees and 31 degrees in terms of road conditions, and Sunday could bring temperatures in the 20s and teens.”

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News

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