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Don Davis, Forum News Service, Published January 03 2014

Historic cold leads Dayton to cancel school Monday across Minnesota; ND governor leaves decision to local districts

ST. PAUL – Weather forecasters say “a very dangerous and historic cold air outbreak” will cover the Upper Midwest early next week, which prompted Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to take the rare action on Friday of closing all public schools Monday.

The National Weather Service on Friday predicted that the bitterly cold air will arrive Sunday night and last through Tuesday morning. Wind chills could reach as low as 60 below, with temperatures the coldest Minnesotans have felt since 1996.

With the coldest weather expected Monday morning, when most Minnesota students were to go back to classes after a two-week break, Dayton became the second governor in modern times to close schools.

“The safety of Minnesota’s school children must be our first priority,” Dayton said Friday. “I have made this decision to protect all our children from the dangerously cold temperatures now forecasted for next Monday.”

While students look forward to at least one bonus day off, state officials said that a variety of factors converged to make it logical to cancel classes.

State Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius said that the decision came because more than 80 straight hours of bitterly cold weather are predicted across the state. Also, she said, because of cold weather during the holiday break, buses could be difficult to run after being parked so long.

“This is a historic weather pattern,” Cassellius said, with wind chills expected to be so cold that students waiting for a bus or walking to school could suffer frostbite after just five or 10 minutes.

Cassellius said that weather seldom is the same across Minnesota, so a statewide closure usually is not needed.

“Typically weather patterns are varied throughout the state,” she said. “But we know with this one coming that the entire state will be blanketed with cold temperatures.”

School officials react

Local school officials on the Minnesota side of the Red River applauded the governor’s decision

“It will save us time worrying about it Sunday,” Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Superintendent Bryan Thygeson said. “I appreciate that the governor is being pro-active.”

Moorhead Assistant Superintendent Wayne Kazmierczak said the extreme cold forecast for Monday would have made a decision to not hold school “a no-brainer for us.”

“When it gets down to that range, the equipment (such as school buses) doesn’t operate very well,” Kazmierczak said.

Given blizzard warnings in the area, Kazmierczak said Moorhead schools also decided to cancel all activities starting Friday night, over the weekend and through Monday night.

In North Dakota, Gov. Jack Dalrymple encouraged school superintendents to use their discretion in deciding whether to close schools Monday, with student safety being the first priority. Fargo and West Fargo administrators discussed the issue Friday.

Fargo Public Schools will monitor the weather this weekend and make a decision on Sunday whether to hold classes Monday, district spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell said.

Similarly, West Fargo administrators decided to stick with district protocol and decide Sunday evening whether to hold classes Monday, spokeswoman Heather Konschak said.

The South Dakota governor’s office also said local officials will make any school-closing decisions.

Much of eastern North Dakota and South Dakota and western Minnesota fell under a blizzard or winter storm advisory Friday afternoon and night, with travel not advised as wind-whipped snow made roads slick. But a weekend fall into the deep freeze was the bigger issue throughout the region. The National Weather Service said some cold temperature records may be broken.

If Tuesday remains frigid, Cassellius said, she does not expect the governor to cancel classes again. She said local officials likely will make that decision.

All schools will decide whether to hold activities, but Cassellius said she expects most Monday activities to be canceled. Each district also will decide whether teachers and staff should work Monday.

Hesitant to criticize

State law gives the governor authority to order schools to close.

In modern times, only Gov. Arne Carlson closed schools statewide, and he did it three times: Jan. 18, 1994, Feb. 2, 1996, and Jan. 16, 1997.

School superintendents were hesitant to criticize Carlson after his 1997 decision, but some argued the decision should be local.

“Are we that bad off?” Cook County High School Principal Mark Sanbo told the Duluth News Tribune at the time. “I don’t know. Most of the people I know that live in the state of Minnesota kind of expect cold weather. It’s a hazard of living here. People kind of wear it as a badge of courage.”

Students at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and University of Minnesota systems across the state continue their winter break next week, so classes are not scheduled.

Private schools make their own decisions about closing.

Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt contributed to this report.