Snow Days are Work Days for Many DMPS Employees

Clearing miles of sidewalks and parking lots is just some of the work that happens on a “snow day.”

Today marks the first official day of winter. But, as you no doubt noticed, the season made an early entrance on Wednesday night.

And while the winter solstice is supposed to mark the shortest day of the year, hours of daylight are a crude measure. Just ask Dave Silver, the district’s Director of Facility Management and a key link in the chain of command that makes the go/no-go call for school when winter comes in big batches.

“I must admit, with this being my swan song, I won’t miss snowstorms,” Silver said on Wednesday while waiting for the winter storm known as “Draco” to descend. He’s planning to retire after 28 years with the district, and 12 years in his current role. “Next winter I’ll roll over, notice how pretty the snow is and go back to sleep.”

Kids, as you may also have noticed, make the best of blizzards. It doesn’t get any better than snowmen, sledding, hot chocolate and the ultimate wintry perk: SNOW DAYS! But, for many DMPS employees, snow days are work days if you’re trying to keep the state’s largest school district open for business.

According to Silver, it takes 15 employees and trucks about 8-10 hours to plow the many miles of DMPS parking lots and sidewalks in order to be ready for school.

“Typically, we start plowing between 10:00 PM and midnight. The challenge is when storms hit during that time, such as this one,” Silver explained. “When it snows between midnight and 7:00 AM, we end up having to plow twice. Our custodians come in between 5:00 and 6:00 AM, depending on how much snow they have to clear from the sidewalks.”

“I drive the streets between 2:30 and 4:30 AM, and then call Bill Good (his boss and the district’s Chief Operations Officer) with a street condition report,” added Silver. “Before I do that, I talk to the National Weather Service at the Des Moines airport. I’m also on e-mail lists from Polk County Emergency Management and Safeguard Iowa, and I talk to the city’s public works dispatcher to check on progress with street plowing. There are instances when we’re ready for school, but streets are impassable for our buses, so we had to cancel.”

Silver reports to Good, who then confers with interim Superintendent Tom Ahart. Ahart also talks with other superintendents in the metro area to get an update on their plans. Decisions are then made as soon as possible whether to hold school as usual, delay the start of the day or cancel altogether.

Sometimes it’s an easy call. On Wednesday night, prevailing conditions and overnight forecasts made it abundantly clear that school on Thursday would not be advisable. Friday morning was more problematic. Every effort was made to salvage the last day of classes before winter recess. But the combination of snow-packed streets, a sub-zero wind chill, and school buildings that were still without power into the wee hours of the morning made a second snow day inevitable. This marked just the tenth time in 40 years that classes were cancelled because of weather for two days in a row.

Once a decision is made to cancel classes, its then up to the Community Relations staff to get out the word. Not many years ago, that simply involved notifying the news media. Today, both social media and the district’s web site play a growing role in sharing the news. And, a CNN-style scroll provides a weather closing update on the district’s cable station, DMPS-TV. On Wednesday night, cancellation of classes for Thursday were announced and posted in advance of the 10 o’clock news; an updated announcement was made early Thursday morning that school district offices would also be closed. On Friday, the announcement that classes were cancelled went out at 5:33 AM.

“The news media always good a good job of quickly letting their viewers and readers know about school closings and delays,” said Phil Roeder, Director of Community Relations for DMPS. “With the additional use of social media, it helps information move that much more quickly. During the 36 hour period between Wednesday night and Friday morning, nearly a thousand people became new followers of our Facebook and Twitter pages to get updates about whether or not classes would be held.”

“If you look at the operations side of our school district, a snow day is as busy, and sometimes more so, as any other work day,” added interim Superintendent Tom Ahart. “We have a very dedicated group of employees who are putting in long hours, and sometimes working under adverse conditions, to do everything from making sure conditions are safe for our students and staff to seeing that our buildings and grounds are ready to open.”

So next time you’re out shoveling and blowing and wondering when your street’s going to get plowed and when your power’s coming back on and whether you should call off the neighbors coming over for eggnog and Scattergories, try to put yourself in the boots and galoshes of the folks worrying about 60+ buildings, miles of sidewalks and the best interests of 32,000 students and their families.

Enjoy the bonus break. Happy Holidays!

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