North Shore school districts see snow, decide go or no-go
Student Whitt Ryan of Wilmette clears his windshield March 5 at New Trier's Winnetka campus. | Joel Lerner~Sun-Times Media
Updated: April 15, 2013 6:19AM
Same snow. Different district.
Snowy March 5 was a day of work or play for public school students around the area, depending on where they’re enrolled.
All the kids in Northfield Township stayed home, for instance, but the school bells rang as usual in New Trier Township.
Go or no-go is a hard call that involves more than safety of students and staff.
The buck mainly stops at the desks of the superintendents of the high school districts, who referee the decision-making process with their feeder districts.
“We all try to do the same thing,” Glenbrook High School District 225 Superintendent Mike Riggle said, referring to the Northfield Township schools, as the snow came down that afternoon.
“We all open, or we all close.”
If they didn’t agree within townships, the family angst would burgeon, said Linda Yonke, superintendent of New Trier High School District 203.
If the little kids are home, for instance, and the big kids are in high school, the big kids can’t watch the little ones while parents are working.
Riggle and his bunch made their agreement relatively early, around 9:30 p.m. the night before.
Forecasts then warned of 10-inch accumulations, with snowfalls starting at 3 a.m.
“A lot of districts already had decided to close,” he said.
To the north, feeder areas led by high school districts 113 and 120 made the call to shut down for a day. To the west, 207, 214 and 211, likewise.
“It was certainly influential to see the other districts closing,” Yonke said March 6.
She and the six feeder district superintendents, however, decided to wait until early the next morning, knowing that some parents wanted to know before then.
“There are some advantages to calling it the night before. Parents can make decisions about child care. Some can make the decision to sleep in,” she said.
“But there’s also sort of an unpredictability, and there are often changes in the forecasts. And that is indeed what happened.”
At 4 a.m., the forecasts already indicated, accurately, that the morning rush would likely be much easier than originally thought. The heavier snow would start falling around noon.
“We made a decision to go ahead and hold school,” Yonke said.
The easy morning didn’t make Riggle regret the early decision. “It’s coming down more than an inch an hour,” he said at around 2:30 p.m. “It’s easier to get them to school than to get them home.”
If it takes hours for the buses to arrive after school, will parents who wait for their arrivals fret? Will family schedules fall apart? And no one wants to make the decision, if schools remain open, to close some schools early to spread out the buses, Riggle said.
That can cause even worse timing problems for suburban parents, most of whom use cars, anyway.
On the road
All of the Glenbrooks’ feeders, except Glenview District 34, use the same big bus company, First Student, while New Trier’s feeders each use a different company. Neither superintendent considered that disparity much of a reason to make a decision one way or another, because most of the companies serving New Trier districts have a full slate of customers outisde New Trier.
“The main question with buses is, Are they able to start, and are they able to get out of the depot?” said Jason Edelheit, the director of finance and operations for Glencoe’s elementary District 35.
As it turned out, the afternoon went pretty smoothly in New Trier – partly, Yonke said, because area traffic was lighter than normal due to the many closed schools, including most private schools.
However, the bus companies had little to delay their arrival on the North Shore, because of all the other districts they didn’t have to service.
The lack of an early New Trier commitment, one way or another, didn’t seem to generate parent complaints, Yonke said.
“We sent out more than 5,000 emails,” she said. “I got about 25 back. About half said it was a good call, and about half said, ‘Everybody else was closed, why weren’t we?’”
Not everybody. Evanston, Niles Township and Libertyville-Vernon Hills schools stayed open, too.
Last year and this year are the only years in the last seven that hasn’t brought a day of closure in New Trier – so far. The overall record in Northfield Township is similar.
There’s at least one factor in snow decisions that separates Northfield and New Trier townships, and it can be found on the high school campuses.
There is no large parking lot at the main New Trier campus in Winnetka.
“We have very few students who drive to school,” Yonke said.
Not so at the Glenbrooks, north and south.
“A lot of students drive, probably 1,500,” said Riggle. “Can we get the lots cleared? What about the streets? We’ve got a lot of students driving in, and most of them are pretty inexperienced.”