Thursday morning, I asked Mike Fincher about snow.
“The word ‘snow’ is a four-letter word for me,” he said. “I can’t stand it.”
Granted, Fincher is a grown man, not a frostbitten kid who’s gorged himself on snowcream the last few weeks. As the director of safety for Calhoun County Schools, Fincher’s stance has nothing to do with snow angels. It is singular in focus: Is it safe for Calhoun County children to go to school in inclimate winter weather?
This week, the answer has been no. The threat of ice storms, power outages, impassible roads and several inches of snow has kept the county’s schools, public and private, largely shuttered for the second time in three weeks. Thursday’s sunshine resembled manna from heaven.
For the record, Fincher is not Calhoun County’s Mr. No School on Snow Days. That role falls to the five area superintendents — Anniston, Oxford, Jacksonville, Piedmont and Calhoun County — who listen to Fincher’s recommendations gleaned from information from the National Weather Service, the Emergency Management Agency and local police departments. Each superintendent decides if their system will close, open or delay; differences are rare. Most of the private schools follow the county system’s lead, Fincher said, as do many of the county’s governmental agencies.
The system Fincher describes uses modern technology and expert advice; it’s not as if he turns on The Weather Channel while sipping his morning coffee. Problem is, this system — scientific and wholly professional — nonetheless brings out the worst in some people when either the weather or superintendents’ decisions don’t go as they’d prefer.
The supers, Fincher said, “are damned if they do and damned if they don’t … There are some in government who hate it when we close, and there are some parents who hate it when we close because they have to have child care.”
Thanks to that four-letter word.
Here’s how the system works. In twice-daily briefings with the NWS, Fincher gets forecasts that don’t have what he calls “media interpretation;” at 2 p.m. he gets “good, solid information” for the next day. If weather’s approaching, he and the superintendents — in his words, the “inner circle” — discuss the forecast and their options. If they decide to close or delay, the word goes out.
Winter weather isn’t tornado weather — that’s a “different animal,” Fincher says — so these early decisions don’t usually apply to spring and fall. (Plus, anyone who’d criticize a system for closing in advance of a potential tornado outbreak is a fool.)
It’s comical to listen to Fincher, who is retiring this summer after more than 15 years with the county schools, describe how schools used to make these decisions. No one had radar apps on their phone and the Internet was in its infancy, so Fincher, the superintendents and others would hop in their cars around 3 in the morning and drive around the county.
Slick or impassible roads meant cancellations or delays. They’d alert the TV and radio stations by 5 a.m. It was the equivalent of licking your finger and seeing which way the wind’s blowing.
Over time, technology and the county’s ultra-modern radio systems (due to the incinerator) gave the EMA and school officials better and quicker methods. Instead of deciding by 5 a.m. to cancel school that day, they could announce closures or delays the afternoon before. Parents loved the switch, Fincher said. Interestingly, he describes it as “creating the monster” of letting the public know a day early, sometimes as much as an 18-hour advance notice.
But that monster, like the criticism, is real. Superintendents are paid handsomely, but few decisions they make are judged as soundly as these snow-day closures. And when the meteorologists miss the forecast — as happened two weeks ago when snow started falling earlier than predicted — everyone asks: What were these jokers thinking? (The same logic could be applied to Thursday, when many of Calhoun County’s roads were drivable by mid-morning, yet school was out, again.)
It is a thankless, troublesome, tricky job. Heaven help the superintendents who do it.
Fincher didn’t tell me this, but I think he’d agree: Isn’t it time for spring?
Phillip Tutor — firstname.lastname@example.org — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.