January 5, 2009 in City

Schools playing it safe in snow

Most districts close on sheriff’s urging
By The Spokesman-Review
 

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich on Sunday “strongly recommended” all schools in Spokane County remain closed today, and most districts that had not already made the decision to keep children home were complying with his unprecedented step.

Spokane Public Schools, which had announced earlier in the day that classrooms would be open, quickly changed course and opted to close.

Knezovich and mayors Rich Munson of Spokane Valley and Mary Verner of Spokane said their overriding concern was the safety of children who would be walking to school in the streets, or awaiting buses while hidden behind snow berms.

“We don’t want to have a loss of life,” said Munson, who said berms along Sprague Avenue were 8 feet high before expected overnight snowfall.

Kerry Jones of the National Weather Service predicted 5 to 8 inches starting Sunday night into this morning, with the possibility of street flooding later in the week as temperatures warm toward 40 degrees. Up to 1 1/2 inches of rain is likely to saturate the snowpack accumulated since the first major dump Dec. 17 and 18.

“It’s going to be a significant event,” Jones said of the overnight snow, adding that winds could gust up to 35 mph as the temperatures rise.

Knezovich, acting as director of emergency management for the county, said officials will reconvene at 4 p.m. today to reassess conditions. Although the school closure was announced as a recommendation, Knezovich said the Department of Emergency Management was reviewing Washington law to see if he was empowered to order the closures.

Lisa Jameson, spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Office, said a Spokane City/County Inter-Local Agreement gives Knezovich authority to manage the ongoing snow emergency, using recommendations as a tool.

Knezovich said he was unaware of a precedent for his action, which also applies to private schools.

He said he wants to be sure bus routes are clear, and that the schools have cleared away snow that would impede safe access to buses. Some of that work has been delayed because school maintenance workers have been removing snow from flat roofs, he said.

No school roofs have collapsed, but numerous businesses have experienced cave-ins.

“Our roofs are built to a higher standard,” said Spokane Public Schools Assistant Superintendent Mark Anderson, who noted the district hired a structural engineer to confirm the integrity of its 60 buildings.

He said district maintenance workers have been at schools every day, including holidays, removing snow from walkway canopies, bus loading areas and sidewalks. Buildings usually kept cool during Christmas vacation have been heated to help melt rooftop snow.

“We are going to have huge utility bills,” Anderson said.

Anderson and Superintendent Nancy Stowell said they, too, were concerned with student safety, and would have allowed parents who did not think their children could get to school safely to keep them home.

“We thought we were ready to go,” Anderson said, although the expected overnight snowfall might have forced the district to close schools anyway.

Area colleges also plan to shut their doors. Terrible street conditions in Cheney prompted Eastern Washington University to decide last week to cancel school today. The Community Colleges of Spokane are closed, delaying the start of winter term for at least a day. Washington State University Spokane also suspended operations. Whitworth University is monitoring the situation and plans to make a decision about holding classes by 6 a.m. today. Officials urged students, faculty and staff to use caution in making travel decisions. Updated information will be available online at www.whitworth.edu.

Gonzaga University is still on break this week.

It didn’t appear Sunday that the closures extended past the state line, although the Coeur d’Alene Tribal School is on a two-hour delay today. Hazel Bauman, superintendent of Coeur d’Alene Public Schools, said that as of Sunday afternoon, the district’s plan was to open today.

“The parking lots are cleared, the roofs are in good shape, the sidewalks have been cleared. Our facilities are ready to go,” she said. “If it’s not a huge storm, we’re good to go with the buses.”

She wouldn’t expect to make the call Sunday unless things got bad over the course of the evening. Parents can call the district’s transportation hotline, (208) 667-0784, for recorded information on closures.

“I’m really hoping we have school,” Bauman said. “But of course, we’re not going to compromise the safety of the kiddos.”

The sheriff and mayors said snow-related costs have become overwhelming.

Verner said the city is spending an estimated $150,000 a day on plowing, with bills since mid-December probably exceeding $2 million.

“We can’t sustain this fiscally,” she said.

Munson said Spokane Valley is awaiting its plowing bill from Spokane County, with the likelihood the $500,000 budgeted is already gone. Without federal or state aid, city budgets will be in trouble, he said.

Knezovich said the management team is looking statewide, and even out of state, to find resources. But there is a limit to what can be done, he said.

“We can’t remove every berm there is,” he said.

Staff writer Carolyn Lamberson contributed to this report.


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