Let It Snow

When it snowed in Las Vegas on Dec. 19th, it was just the second time in 30 years that the Clark County School District took a snow day. Having studied the mistakes made on the district’s first snow day, in December of 1979, Superintendent Walt Rulffes canceled school on Thursday and added the lost day to the end of the school year.

He did not, as did the superintendent back in 1979, schedule the make up day for the following Saturday. That didn’t work well. The kids reacted poorly. Many called the administrators at 2:00 a.m. Saturday morning and complained sarcastically that they were up and getting ready for school. “Are you up yet?” asked the student callers.

Even districts located in heavy snow zones can be surprised by a sudden snowstorm. The surprise can cause even more of a shock to those located in areas where it doesn’t snow much or often, as in Las Vegas.

Preparation can keep the confusion and damage to the academic year to a minimum.

Located in a region where it might snow 12 in. once or twice a year or not at all, Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), headquartered in Louisville, Ky., deals with a lot of false alarms — snow storms predicted by the weather services that never materialize. Sometimes the storms do materialize, like the 12-in. snow that fell in December and closed the schools for a day. More often than not, however, storms lay down an inch or three in the middle of the night and cause nothing worse than a delay of an hour or two.

Still, the district serves 99,000 students attending 155 schools and must prepare for every forecast winter weather threat or risk the safety of students, bus drivers, staff, and faculty.

The district’s executive director for facilities and transportation, Michael Mulheirn directs the JCPS snow effort. In broad strokes, he prepares for each school year by maintaining 25 vehicles devoted to snow control and removal, compared to nine a decade ago. Twenty-one of the vehicles, mostly Ford 450s, are equipped with plows and salt spreaders.

The other four are homemade brine spreaders with 500-gallon tubs on flatbed bodies.

In a typical storm, JCPS lays down 250 tons of salt. Mulheirn prepares for a year by laying in 1,000 tons of salt.

By mixing the salt with brine, it is possible to make more efficient use of salt. “We started with brine two years ago,” Mulheirn says. “It makes a good pre-treatment. We lay it down in stripes. The water evaporates and leaves a coating of salt. It’s a way to extend the supply of salt. But we can only put brine down before the temperature reaches freezing.”

Mulheirn says he is also experimenting with a mixture of brine and beet juice, which makes the brine last four times as long, allowing the salt crew to spread the brine ahead of an event without worrying that it will wash away.

For temperatures below freezing, Mulheirn says that his team is experimenting with a liquid product called Magic Minus Zero, which mixes with the brine and prevents the brine from freezing at temperatures down to zero degrees Fahrenheit.

The brine typically handles snowfalls of one to two in., as well as the occasional Louisville ice storm. Heavier snows require plowing to push the snow out of the way. According to Mulheirn, however, JCPS snowstorms rarely if ever require snow removal. “We were able to handle the 12-in. storm in December on site,” he says. “It did shrink the parking lot, though.”

School districts further to the north have to make arrangements to haul snowfalls of several feet away.

They also have to know where to push and not to push the snow. In the Chicago Public Schools, for instance, the facility operations bulletin supplied to principals and maintenance engineers recommends mapping the location of yard drains, catch basins, and storm sewers in the street. “Snowmelt will disappear much quicker if the water has free access to the street and yard drains,” the bulletin says.

And don’t forget to map the locations of the fire hydrants to avoid plowing into them when they are hidden beneath deep snow.

Before the Storm

When a storm is forecast for Jefferson County, Mulheirn dispatches a crew of drivers (one director, three managers, and 13 coordinators) to drive the roads all night looking for trouble spots in the subdivisions and back roads. “If there is a problem in a subdivision, we ask the city for help,” Mulheirn says. “At 4:15 a.m., the crew reports on what has been found. By 4:30 a.m., I call the superintendent with a recommendation to cancel school, delay by one or two hours, or to keep the schools open. Typically, the recommendation is accepted and I call the public information officer, who uses a phone tree to call the radio and television stations. By 5:00 a.m., the information has been distributed.

“For 12-in. storm we had in December, we called off school the night before because we were sure it is coming. But that’s unusual. Storms are typically smaller in Jefferson County, and we have to wait as long as we can to make the call because storms often miss us altogether.”

At the same time Mulheirn is discussing the condition of the roads with his patrol drivers, salt crews, made up of JCPS grounds crew and maintenance personnel, are salting the district’s 13 bus compounds, each of which stores about 75 buses including spares. Mulheirn says that it is important to treat the entire compound, including the area where the drivers park, to prevent slip and fall accidents. In addition, they check the buses and de-ice them if necessary.

Crews also spend extra time at 20 all-weather sites that run Child Enrichment Programs for young children that need daycare. “When the schools close, but parents have to work, they still drop their children off at these sites,” Mulheirn says.

Meanwhile, the Ford 450s are plowing and salting the roads on the districts 155 school campuses.

The established division of labor has the custodial and ground crews for each school clearing the sidewalks and entrances.

Even though JCPS doesn’t expect heavy snowstorms, Mulheirn has taken steps to ensure that help is available should the unexpected strike. He has signed contracts with a number of area landscaping firms to be on call during storms.

The relatively light storms in the Louisville region don’t require laying out sand and ashes to help ensure traction for school busses and cars. Again, schools in colder climes do use these materials. The Chicago Public Schools Bulletin cautions about the use of sand and ashes and recommends placing walk off mats at each entrance and down the corridors. “Entrance and walk off mats, placed at those high traffic entrances, can reduce the amount of soil and water being tracked through the building by 60 percent,” says the Bulletin.

Remember the damage a single piece of salt or a pebble can do if ground into a tile or terrazzo floor with a heavy boot.

The goal of preparing for snow is keeping schools open. That requires planning ahead, maintaining vehicles, stockpiling salt, and making sure that everyone knows his or her job. When the time comes, monitor the roads first hand. Pre-treat the roads with salt or brine. Plow and salt all of the facilities. Shovel sidewalks and entrances. Finally, lay out the walk off mats, and let it snow.