Thursday, January 12, 2017

MWN Interview: Dr. David Stephens, "Winter Weather in a Southern School District"

Earlier this week, meteorologist Erik Proseus had the opportunity to sit down with Bartlett City Schools Superintendent Dr. David Stephens to talk about winter weather, and specifically the process a southern school district goes through in preparing for and executing operations when winter weather is forecast. Though his answers apply specifically to Bartlett, from our conversation it was clear that the process is fairly similar in other districts in the area. What follows is a Q & A from our conversation, edited for length. At the end of the post, you'll find a link to the audio of the entire conversation, as well as a full transcript. I think you'll find it enlightening, especially if you are a parent of school age children.

Can you start with just giving me a little bit of the background of the district? How many schools, how many students do you serve, and staff?

Bartlett has 11 schools, six elementary, three middle schools, one Ninth Grade Academy, and Bartlett High School. We have approximately 8700 students and about 850 staff members, so a fairly large district. In fact, as far as the municipal and city districts in the state, we are the largest.

It's said with probably some truth that southerners really don’t handle snow and ice well, and for good reason. First we don’t have a lot of practice with it, so even when you do put together a plan and you get to exercise it, you don’t get to exercise it again with your best practices a week later. And then as we all know, winter weather is a challenging meteorological question as well. So how early do you start to think about what your plans are going to be for this year in case of inclement weather?

Once we get school up and running and we get into the end of September, end of October, we start having discussions about our communication plan, how we’re going to do that. We look at what we’ve done in the past, and usually at the end of the snow season, we kind of sit down and see what works and what doesn’t.

What sources are you using for your information and are you consulting with other districts as you’re making these decisions?

Yeah, there’s a lot of communication. What I do is I constantly watch the weather. Fortunately, I’m kind of a weather nut. If you looked at my computer, you’d see different websites. I always look at 10 and sometimes I’ll even look at 15-day forecasts just to see, moisture and temperature. But I’ll say, Erik, and I’m not saying this in a gratuitous way, but the work you’ve done and the relationship we’ve been able to have where I can reach out to you and you can reach out to me with has been extremely helpful. [...] I’ll take that text [you send me] and send it to on to some of my colleagues, cause we’re getting it from a lot of different sources. I look at the Weather Channel, that’s pretty global, but I have that [] information here [locally]. I do enjoy the National Weather Service site and we will get on their conference calls.

So leading up to that, we’re [superintendents] having conversations because, you know, it’s kind of the domino. Once one district [cancels], then the heightened sense of, all right, what are you going to do? So we try to coordinate, and it may not be the same [decision for each district] because you can have a situation where Bartlett may be doing pretty good, but down in Collierville/Germantown, they may be the ones getting those issues, so it’s not always that we’re going to be the same, but we do try to coordinate and have discussions.

[Dr. Stephens continues about the process of making the cancellation decision]

We have a group of three of us that get out and drive the streets of Bartlett. We’re up at 3:30 a.m. We get out, we look at the conditions around our house, then we get out in our cars and go. [...] Then I touch base with some of the other superintendents to see what [they're] seeing. Then we’ll pull over in parking lots and I will meet with our staff. [...] It’s something that I take very seriously, because the thing we always want to do is, if we’re going to err, we’re going to err on the side of caution. We do not want to put any student, staff member, parent, anybody at any risk. [...] Between 4:30 and 5:00, we have to make that call because buses are going to start rolling. The bus drivers appreciate [letting them know] as early as we can so we’re not getting them out on the roads. [...] When I can’t see the lane lines, I’m not going to put buses and kids out in this.

What about early dismissals and late starts versus just calling off the day?

We have a fleet of [over 50] buses and they run three tiers. That’s how we’re able to economize and save. [...] From a parent perspective, the sooner we can let them know, I mean, perfectly, we’d let them know the night before. It’s hard to do that based on a forecast because, as we know, at times, it’s difficult. We understand they have young children and they have to make arrangements, so we want to let them know as soon as possible. But once we’re in school, let’s say it’s 9:00 and the snow’s coming down. We have to dismiss. Well then our schools that dismiss at 2:00, we would have to start [dismissing] those from 9:00 to 10:00, then your middle tier schools 10:00 to 11:00, [then the late schools from] 11:00 to 12:00. So you’ve got a three-hour period where you’re running those buses.

As far as the academic calendar is concerned, do they [snow days] have to be made up?

We do go some extra time [on each school day] to stockpile a few snow days. And then at the end of the year, I have to make a recommendation to the Board [of Education]. It’s a Board decision. Do we extend the school year by a day or two, or do we use those stockpiled days? If you miss a big chunk, if we’re out two weeks, that’s a lot of instruction [time missed]. But two or three days, if you look at adding that after Memorial Day, you really think how much instruction [will take place]? [...] I never plan a vacation the first week in June because you just never know if we’re [going to be] out for a long, extended period of time.

With social media I know that you’re hearing from people, good or bad. Does that make those decisions any more challenging?

We just have to deal with the facts. And at the end of the day, you have to be able to look yourself in the mirror and say, we’ve made the best decision for our kids and our community and our parents. [...] We want kids in school. We want those those things that are happening in classrooms to happen, but if I ever put a kid in a situation where somebody was hurt, [...] that’s a superintendent’s nightmare.

Finally, with 850 staff and almost 9000 kids and all their parents, what do you want them to know, bottom line, about the decisions you make regarding inclement weather and operations?

Well, we’re gathering a lot of information. We’re talking to other districts. We’re looking at those forecasts and we are going to make the best decision to keep our kids safe. That is the bottom line. We just don’t have the experience of driving on snow. We don’t have the equipment to mitigate snow. So we’re going to make that decision and sometimes we’re going to get it right. But if we’re going to miss it, we’re going to miss it on the side of caution.

You can get the same accurate and updated information Superintendent Stephens and many other decision-makers across the metro use by visiting, following us on social media, downloading the MWN mobile app, or reading this blog. Many thanks to Dr. Stephens for taking some of his valuable time to speak with MWN and educating all of us on the process involved when winter weather affects his district!

Listen to the entire interview via the player below, or if the player does not work, click here.

A full transcript of the interview in PDF format can be found here.

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