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Split decision on schools

Sheriff’s call to cancel school frustrated district officials on verge of resuming classes

Education officials say they were ready to start school Monday and weren’t consulted before the Spokane County sheriff publicly called on them to extend winter break by an extra day.

But some districts – including Mead, Central Valley and West Valley – later decided to cancel school today, as well. Spokane Public Schools planned to hold classes today.

Citing a forecast for up to 11 inches of new snow, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich held a press conference Sunday afternoon in which he urged districts to delay the start of school for a day.

Knezovich said he wanted to make sure that bus routes were safe and that schools had cleared snow from access areas. Some of that work was delayed, he told reporters, because districts were busy removing snow from roofs.

At the same time, the mayors of Spokane and Spokane Valley said they were worried about kids being forced to walk in streets, because many sidewalks hadn’t been cleared of snow. Snow berms, which Spokane Valley Mayor Rich Munson said would be removed from near intersections as crews have time, obscure drivers’ views of pedestrians, they noted.

Still, officials at Spokane County’s largest districts said they were ready to start Monday.

“We were surprised we were not consulted,” said Mark Anderson, associate superintendent for Spokane Public Schools.

In the Central Valley School District, “We spent most of the day (Sunday) planning for Monday to be a two-hour late start,” spokeswoman Melanie Rose said.

Knezovich’s announcement, which came after CV officials announced the late start, came as “a complete surprise,” Rose said.

West Valley School District also was caught off guard.

“It’s just a hard thing to have the sheriff directing what we should do,” district spokeswoman Sue Shields said. “We need to take a look at our district ourselves.”

Sheriff sticks by decision

Knezovich said Monday he was sure some school officials were surprised. But he defended Sunday’s decision, saying Spokane is experiencing a “once in a lifetime” winter.

“If I see there is a danger to our children, I will take the same action,” he said. “We will not sacrifice the safety of our children.”

Knezovich said there’s no practical way for his office to enforce requirements that property owners keep sidewalks clear.

“There are so many miles of sidewalks that are not shoveled, we don’t have the resources to ticket everybody who is not doing so,” he said.

Students throughout the county started winter break two days earlier than planned because of the storm that hit Dec. 17. Maintenance and custodial staff in the districts have since been clearing roofs and parking lots and checking for leaks and other problems.

The parking lot at Ferris High School, for instance, was plowed for the sixth time Monday, said Tim Wood, interim maintenance and operations director for Spokane schools.

An emergency management team of officials from several local agencies met twice Sunday to assess the situation. Spokane Public Schools sent a representative to the morning meeting, where Anderson said there was no hint Knezovich might announce a countywide school cancellation.

A few hours later, the Spokane district held a press conference to announce that school would start as planned, but that nervous parents could keep their kids home. Officials stressed all that had been done to prepare for the day and asked residents to clear their sidewalks.

Spokane schools didn’t send anyone to the emergency team’s second meeting, held Sunday afternoon. It was there, with a risk manager from Education Service District 101 present, that Knezovich decided he would call for the school cancellation.

“There was a major snow event that had been forecasted earlier in the morning,” said Munson, who attended the meeting and said he thought Knezovich made the right call. “We went around the room asking, how long would it take to clear that snow just to get around?”

Munson said the answer – 48 hours for streets in Spokane and Spokane Valley – convinced those in attendance that districts should cancel school without waiting until morning to see how much snow had fallen.

“It’s bad enough to walk on plowed streets,” Munson said. “But to walk on unplowed streets, on the arterials – it’s just insane.”

Mike Dunn, ESD 101 superintendent, said his agency didn’t make a recommendation. But when he learned of Knezovich’s decision, Dunn called superintendents throughout the county to spread the word.

The response was mixed, said Dunn, the former superintendent of the Cheney School District. Some districts had already decided to cancel school. For districts planning to open, “of course it would be frustrating, when you’ve already gone through a decision-making process,” Dunn said.

The sheriff presented his decision during Sunday’s press conference as a “strong recommendation.” He also said state law was being reviewed to determine whether he had the authority to issue it as an order.

No district acted against Knezovich’s wishes.

“It’s difficult for us to go against the emergency responders’ recommendation,” Anderson said.

Mead School District officials didn’t question Knezovich’s decision to “err on the side of caution,” said Wayne Leonard, district director of business services. “He has a better handle on information that he’s receiving across the county.”

Some storms this season, such as Dec. 17’s, dropped more snow than predicted. But the storm that came through Spokane overnight Sunday fell short of the forecast. Wood measured 3 1/2 inches of fresh snow at Ferris on Monday.

Clearing continues

Because of the early decision to cancel school, Wood gave his weary crews the night off. They started plowing parking lots at the 54 Spokane schools Monday morning, instead of Sunday night.

Other districts also used Monday to clear the new snow and handle other emergencies, including the collapse of a maintenance building in the Mead School District.

Central Valley put crews to work shoveling snow from roofs and decided late Monday to cancel school today to continue the work in anticipation of rain that’s expected to add weight to the snowpack this week. Rose said the Sheriff’s Office agreed to temporarily close Pines Road on Monday evening to let district crews dig out sidewalks near North Pines Elementary

“You can’t just get out a snowblower and a shovel,” she said. “You have to bring in heavy equipment.”

Engineers re-evaluated some schools’ roofs in West Valley Monday. As a result, WV officials canceled school today so snow could be removed from some buildings.

Ness Elementary “was almost at capacity for the load limit,” West Valley spokeswoman Shields said. “It was a surprise. We had no idea it was that heavy.”

East Valley also canceled school today and planned to open two hours late Wednesday. District administrators asked employees and the public to bring shovels and snowblowers to East Valley schools from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. today.

“At almost every school we’ve got issues with snow removal, because there’s just too much,” district spokeswoman Judi Christianson said.

Staff writer Thomas Clouse contributed to this report. Contact Dan Hansen at (509) 459-3938 or danh@spokesman.com.

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