MCSD explains late notice to close schools

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comFebruary 12, 2014 

The Muscogee County School Board voted July 9, 2013, to name Polk County's David Lewis, 56, as the finalist for the job of superintendent.

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If your child attends a Muscogee County public school and you received Wednesday's closure notice between 5 and 7 a.m., you might be wondering what took so long.

At 4:19 p.m. Tuesday, Harris County interim superintendent Jeff Branham emailed the Ledger-Enquirer with his closure announcement. Troup County's announcement came at 6:51 p.m., and also included the closure for Thursday.

Those two counties are north of Muscogee, so their forecasts predicted more dangerous weather, especially icy roads.

Meanwhile, Muscogee school officials monitored the changing forecast for Columbus and didn't announced the district's closure until after 11 p.m. The Ledger-Enquirer received its email at 11:14 p.m.

Valerie Fuller, the school district's communications director, explained why.

"This decision was based on information provided by local meteorologists and an ever-changing weather scenario that evolved throughout the evening," she said. "The early evening weather advisory predicted rain throughout the day with temperatures hovering in the mid-30s. However, as we continued to monitor the weather throughout the evening, the advisories lowered temperature predictions to 33 degrees and possibly lower in certain areas of the county by early this morning."

Fuller, superintendent David Lewis and operations chief Myles Caggins contacted local meteorologists, she said, "who indicated this was going to be a 'close call.' Temperatures early in the day were predicted to be near freezing and the accelerated arrival of a cold front will bring freezing rain and wintry mix into the area in the afternoon causing hazardous driving conditions, particularly in the northern and eastern parts of the county and any roadways with bridges or other areas that tend to ice.

"Therefore, given the updated predictions and the reticence on the part of meteorologists, Mr. Lewis made the decision on the side of safety and caution to close schools today to avoid the possibility of hazardous road conditions either early this morning or in the afternoon during the dismissal window."

Along with notifying the media, Fuller at the same time emailed the district's employees and posted the closure announcement on its Facebook page and website, she said.

But the district's automated telephone system wasn't activated until 5 a.m. because it takes up to two hours to complete the estimated 40,000 calls, and officials didn't want to wake up families in the middle of the night when getting the notice between 5 and 7 a.m. would have been in plenty of time before leaving for school, Fuller said.

"While Mr. Lewis regrets the circumstances that led to the lateness of the decision," she said, "he does believe it to be a reasonable and prudent one given the late developing scenario described above."

Asked why MCSD waited until 5 a.m. to start notifying parents via email as well, instead of being part of the email alert sent to the media and employees around 11 p.m., Fuller said, “The phone and email were scheduled at the same time" to be sent to parents because they are part of the same system, separate from the email alert to the media and employees.

As for whether the district will schedule make-up days for missed class time, state superintendent John Barge has proposed granting a waiver to forgive up to four class days due to inclement weather. That's the number Muscogee students have missed this year. The Georgia Board of Education will consider that proposal during its Feb. 20 meeting. School employees, however, aren't included in Barge's proposal, Fuller said.

"Mr. Lewis plans to bring a recommendation regarding make-up days to our board of education for their consideration once we are past any foreseen inclement weather and the total number of missed days is known," she said. "Aside from the obvious ramifications of make-up days to the advance plans of students, parents, and employees, lost days adversely impact school performance indicators and individual student results that must be considered."

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