Icy roads prevent school buses and other vehicles from performing their duties safely. Photo by BEN KATZ

SCOUTING AROUND: Student safety comes first in snow day calls

   At 4 a.m., Cherokee County Schools Superintendent Jeana Conley’s alarm rings. She then gets in contact with her team – the transportation supervisor, each school’s bus director and school resource officers – to determine if the roads are safe for children to be transported to the campuses.
   She also contacts the superintendents of surrounding counties, a weather meteorologist and the N.C. Department of Transportation to aid her team in making their decision. Since the first bus pulls out at 5:30 a.m., they must make a decision on the school day by 5 a.m.
   “Between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., we have a lot of conversations,” Conley said.
   She said she hates to have to call parents that early in the morning on the decision to close school or delay opening.
   However, erratic weather patterns sometimes makes it difficult to decide the night before, which is what she prefers.
   On Thursday afternoon, for example, she traveled county roads with a school resource officer to determine if they would be safe for students – whether bussed, driven or newly driving – to travel the next morning. While downtown areas in Andrews and Murphy were clear, areas with higher elevations were still very icy.
   The conditions vary so much that on one side of a back road in Andrews on Thursday, she saw green grass and thought it looked like spring – while across the street, Conley saw children building a snowman. It was determined, according to the announcement made later that afternoon, that 30 of 41 bus routes were not safe.
   “If safety is at all a factor, we can’t have school,” she said.
   On Jan. 16, the weather model showed safety wouldn’t be factor until 1 p.m. at the earliest. As a result, the school day ended at 11:30 a.m. to make sure the bus driver with the longest route – 2.5 hours – was parked before the snow arrived.
   Some people, like Karen Bateman, were appreciative of the decision to close school early for the safety of students and bus drivers. Bateman is a bus driver for Peachtree Elementary School.
   “It is difficult to be driving a bus when weather turns bad so quickly,” Bateman said in an email to Conley. “Our cargo is most precious in the world. I know some do not understand the need to make these decisions, but from my perspective, my appreciation cannot be expressed in words.”
   The announcement for early release that day included another message.
   “We are grateful to have been able to get most of our kids in after the long weekend in order to give some of them the first breakfast and lunch they have had in several days,” Conley wrote in the message.
   “It wasn’t intended to be a slam or anything,” Conley said Thursday afternoon, amazed at the response that one line had.
   Conley said some parents call her asking to have school in session so their children can eat.
   While she understands the needs of those parents and children, and the school and community works together to meet those needs, she wanted to make it clear that it’s never a factor in deciding if there will be a snow day.
   “We will never risk a travel issue in order to make that happen,” she said. “It’s very black and white ... If it’s safe, we’re going to have school.”
   The number of hours already exhausted also is never a factor in the decision. In fact, since the school calendar was arranged with required hours in mind instead of days, Cherokee County will have to make up days this year to follow the state’s requirement of 1,025 instructional hours by
June 10.
   Since the last day of school for students was scheduled to be May 25, Conley believes they will be able to fit all the makeup days in, adding she’s “not really a fan of Saturdays” for class. Her office will get a lot of criticism no matter what they decide.
   “It’s tough. You want to be trusted, liked and believed, but in the end, I’ve got to do my job,” she said. “I would rather miss the call 100 times than go to a funeral. ... Every one of them matters.”

Art exchange at MAC
   Art from members of the Valley River Arts Guild is traveling to Uptown Gallery in Franklin for February, and art from members of the Macon County Arts Association is coming to the Murphy Art Center for a special “Exchange of Ideas” exhibit at both galleries. The opening reception is from 4-7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 2, at the MAC downtown.
   “The Cherokee County Arts Council undertook this idea following the direction of the N.C. Art Council’s urging local art councils to build cooperative ventures across county lines,” said David Vowell, director of the arts council.
   To select work for the shows, representatives from the Macon County Arts Association visited the guild’s gallery at the MAC, while Vowell and two board members – Dave and Debra Vanderlaan – visited the gallery in Franklin. Eighteen artists in total will benefit from their work being seen by a wider audience, Vowell said.
   Marilyn Greiner will have two pieces showing in Franklin as part of the exchange exhibit.
   “I feel very honored to be selected,” she said. “The Valley River Arts Guild has a very talented membership that I am so glad to be a part of. Also, I am looking forward to seeing the Macon County’s artist’s work.”
   Visitors to the MAC will find the Franklin artists’ work in the center’s Cultural Calendar Room, along with another exhibit, “Director’s Choice,” featuring local works selected by Vowell.
   Samantha Sinclair is the Scouting Around columnist for the Cherokee Scout. You can reach her by email, scoutingaround@cherokeescout.com; fax, 837-5832; or by leaving a message in the office at 837-5122.