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Schools battle loads of snow

Districts hire extra crews to clear roofs, sidewalks

Uncleared sidewalks were the biggest problem for schools that opened Tuesday in Spokane. And roofs were the issue for some that didn’t.

Many districts canceled classes Tuesday – extending winter break to 20 days instead of the planned 17 – so crews could shovel snow from roofs. In other areas, the work continues, with Coeur d’Alene, Liberty, Freeman, Mead, Central Valley, Riverside and Rathdrum-based Lakeland districts among those canceling classes again today.

“This snow is not helping our situation,” Coeur d’Alene Superintendent Hazel Bauman said during the Tuesday afternoon snowfall. “We had hoped it was going to be warmer and we’d get some melting. So far all we’ve seen is snow.”

Bauman and Assistant Superintendent Brad Murray, of Lakeland, said enough concern remained about the snow load at certain schools to keep the districts from opening. After battling the snow all day Tuesday with district maintenance personnel and with contracted crews, drifting snow and the threat of rain increasing the weight of the snow kept the schools closed.

Spokane Public Schools was among the districts where kids returned to classrooms Tuesday. Assorted challenges included delayed buses, roof leaks and two brief evacuations.

Although Spokane Schools spokeswoman Terren Roloff said Tuesday that all District 81 schools will be open today except for the Libby Center, conditions prompted officials to close the district today due to dangerous residential road conditions and rapidly melting snow.

Among Spokane parents who kept their students home Tuesday, many cited the danger of walking on snowy streets, Superintendent Nancy Stowell said. She was contacted by some who argued the district shouldn’t resume classes until sidewalks are clear.

“We can’t go out and clear all those sidewalks,” said Stowell, whose district in recent days has pleaded with Spokane property owners to dig out their walkways – a city requirement that isn’t enforced.

But delaying the start of winter quarter wouldn’t solve anything, Stowell said, because the snow isn’t going away.

“We’ve tried to tell people, if it’s not safe in your neighborhood, don’t send your kids,” she said.

Although classes were canceled at the three Spokane Valley school districts, many educators were busy nonetheless.

Several East Valley School District teachers and administrators helped chip away ice from walkways at Skyview and Otis Orchards elementaries, while plows worked on the parking lot. Volunteer Dan Emert was among those shoveling the gym roof at Otis Orchards Elementary.

“These guys work hard enough,” Emert said of the school’s custodian crew.

Murray said a crew of 80 was working Tuesday to clear the snow from Athol Elementary School before moving to Garwood and John Brown elementary schools.

“We checked our roof limits on January 2nd and 3rd, and they were all in the acceptable range for snow load,” Murray said. “But we went back around yesterday, and it had spiked up around 5 pounds.

“With this incoming (weather), it was going to spike up even more and put us in some situations we didn’t want to be in. We’re going to do what we need to do to keep our buildings safe.”

The situation was similar in the Coeur d’Alene School District, said Bryan Martin, facilities director. His department monitored roof loads throughout winter break. As of Friday, the loads were about half of their limits. With warmer weather expected, Martin said, his crews focused instead on clearing and plowing snow from district property and parking lots.

“Right now, we’re going to do some shoveling,” Martin said.

The district’s schools have a total of 1.25 million square feet of roof space and the maintenance department has only 12 employees, he said. So the district has hired a contract crew of 100 people to get the job done, Martin said.

“The budget is gone,” Martin said. “I don’t even want to think about that right now. I just want to get that weight off the roof.”

Districts in Washington still trying to dig out may get help from a couple of state agencies, something made possible because Gov. Chris Gregoire declared a statewide emergency Dec. 24.

The Washington Conservation Corps planned to have crews atop Riverside schools today. Some of those 18- to 25-year-olds were already in Spokane on Tuesday, removing snow from the roof of the Department of Ecology office in north Spokane. That building shut down Monday after inspectors said it was nearing its weight limit.

The Washington National Guard announced Tuesday that up to 200 citizen soldiers and airmen would be activated to help with the effort, in addition to the Air National Guard crews that already have helped clear roadways. They’ll arrive in Spokane over the next few days.

Staff writer Nina Culver contributed to this report.

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