Spotlights
Making the Tough Call
03/03/2015

Spotlight

When the weather turns chilly, Jim Mitcherling’s mornings turn early. That’s because as director of transportation for Baltimore County Public Schools, Mitcherling has to assess the safety of hundreds of miles of road used twice daily by 72,000 children riding to and from school on nearly 900 buses. It’s a daunting challenge, but one Mitcherling and his team know well.

“There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes when the school system makes a decision about what to do if inclement weather is imminent,” said Mitcherling. “There are a lot of moving pieces.”

Checking the roads is just one of those pieces, all of which must come together, sometimes within hours of one another, in order for the Baltimore County schools’ superintendent to decide whether to open or close schools, open them late or close them early, or suspend afternoon, evening, or weekend school activities. The process is roughly governed by two conditions, both of which are out of BCPS control – time and the weather.

But like baking a cake, BCPS personnel led by Mitcherling go through each methodical step to ensure a safe ride for children. They add layers of information, data, and observation, but ultimately the right decision can be a close call, one always governed by keeping children and staff safe in the event of rough weather. This is how BCPS makes weather-related decisions:

Step 1: Information is key

  • The BCPS Office of Transportation gathers daily weather reports from two weather services, in addition to real-time reports from the Baltimore County Office of Highways on the state of the roads.
  • If bad weather threatens, the BCPS “snow crew” heads out on the roads by 3 a.m., checking conditions on the road, at bus stops, and neighborhood sidewalks and walking routes. Even on nights when no foul weather is predicted, the road crew may still be out checking on known trouble areas or gauging weather conditions. “Already this school year,” Mitcherling says, “the BCPS snow crew has been out over 30 times this year, even though there was no snow or delay.”
  • In addition, school officials begin talking directly with meteorologists to get up-to-the-minute forecasts and knowledgeable information. By 4 a.m., BCPS is talking with county and state highway monitors, physical facilities teams, and other nearby school systems in the path of the inclement weather.

Step 2: Decision Time

  • By 4:30 a.m., transportation officials have reviewed the data and are ready to make a recommendation to the BCPS Chief Administrative and Operations Officer. He then has half an hour to confer with the superintendent.
  • No later than 5 a.m. – the first BCPS buses are ready to go at that time – the superintendent decides whether to open, keep schools closed, or have a delayed opening. “With a lot of these recent storms, it’s been difficult to make a decision by 5 a.m., because so much can change so quickly. That’s why we’ve had to go back and revise an earlier announcement if the weather worsens,” Mitcherling says.

Step 3: Alerting the rest of Team BCPS

  • Even before many students or their parents arise, the decision is broadcast to the public in a variety of ways, starting with tweets on the BCPS Twitter feed within seconds of the decision.
  • Within minutes, the decision is being posted on the BCPS website (www.bcps.org), placed on BCPS-TV, the BCPS Now app, and broadcast on the BCPS telephone “weather line” – 410.887.5555.
  • Also within minutes, calls are made to more than a dozen newsrooms across the region, including all four major Baltimore TV stations. Those reports usually air within seconds.

Mitcherling stresses that the process is inexact and frustrating at times. “If anything,” he says, “we’ll err on the side of caution.” He also notes that because of the fluid nature of weather, it is often easier and more precise to wait until morning rather than the previous night to decide whether to open or close.

“We know people like it when we make a decision the night before, but those instances are relatively rare,” Mitcherling says. “There is so much that can happen so quickly.”

For more information on the way BCPS makes weather-related schedule decisions, please visit: http://www.bcps.org/system/policies_rules/rules/6000Series/RULE6303.pdf.

Story by Charles Herndon, BCPS Communications Specialist
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