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Helmut Schmidt, Published January 05 2014

Many area districts closed Monday; rural schools more likely to have weather-related cancellations

FARGO - In the land of the wind chill factor, an almost sure route to getting a few extra days off from school is to live in a rural area.

The Forum gathered data for days taken off for weather at schools in the region and found that rural districts close up shop more often for winter storms and blizzards than their urban counterparts.

Of course, cold weather also comes into play.

Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton on Friday called off school statewide today as temperatures in the minus-30 degree range were anticipated, with wind chills in the minus-60 degree range. North Dakota’s governor left the decision to cancel classes up to local school districts, and both Fargo and West Fargo officials told students and teachers to stay home today. Many other area schools also canceled classes today because of the extreme cold.

Taking more weather-related days off in rural areas makes sense because rural roads usually get fewer passes from snowplows and snow blows unimpeded over fields to cause white-outs and drifts that can bog down cars, trucks and school buses.

Data from the state Department of Public Instruction focusing strictly on storm days in the past four full school years – 2009-10 to 2012-13 – show that Richland District 44 schools in Colfax led area districts with 11 storm days.

“To me, we’re always thinking about the safety of our kids first,” Richland 44 Superintendent Les Dale said.

Much of the decision hinges on the drivability of rural bus routes, he said.

“Last year, we probably took a couple more days (off) than other school districts around us,” Dale said.

No matter what, Dale said his district must make sure its students have 175 possible teacher contact days to meet North Dakota law.

“If we miss any time, whether it’s a day or hours, we have to make up that time,” Dale said.

Another rural district, Minnesota’s Ulen-Hitterdal, had the fewest days off in the region for weather – two – in the past four years.

Kent Henrickson, Ulen-Hitterdal’s K-12 principal for the past 15 years, said it’s luck, not forcing kids to use sled dogs and snowshoes, that kept classes going.

“We’re kind of situated in the middle (of some heavy bands of snow over the years),” he said. “We’ve been pretty fortunate. We haven’t missed too many days at all.”

Henrickson knows his students would love to be out of school more.

“But at the end of the year, it’s kind of nice to not have those make-up days,” he said.

Several North Dakota rural school districts closed for 10 days over the past four years due to winter storms: Kindred and Page in Cass County; Litchville-Marion in Barnes County; Hankinson in Richland County; and Enderlin in Ransom County, DPI data show.

On the Minnesota side of the Red River, Lake Park-Audubon schools in Becker County and Pelican Rapids in Otter Tail County both called off school nine days in the past four years, figures from those districts show.

Fargo Public Schools called the fewest storm days among urban districts, closing up shop just three days in four years.

Differences in weather-related closings between districts come down to the number of rural bus routes they run, said Fargo schools spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell.

“Bad, bad blizzards we do take off, but we don’t have too many rural bus routes,” Campbell said.

Fargo schools’ Business Manager Broc Lietz and Superintendent Jeff Schatz consult with their counterparts in the Moorhead and West Fargo school districts, and with the National Weather Service office in Grand Forks, Campbell said.

Campbell said the district tries to make its decision before the 10 p.m. news the night before, but certainly before 6 a.m. the day of a storm.

When a decision is made, Fargo parents are notified by a computerized calling system called ConnectEd, she said.

Some areas are just more prone to snow due to topography and weather patterns, said Blaine Novak, superintendent of the New York Mills schools.

Novak’s district has taken only three full-day snow days in the last four years.

“Our weather is so much different than 10 miles west of here,” Novak said.

“Every district has its own uniqueness,” agreed Scott Loeslie, superintendent of the Barnesville (Minn.) School District. Barnesville students have had five days off for bad weather in the past four full years.

The statistics for weather-related closings are similar over the past five years, except for districts along the Sheyenne and Red rivers and their tributaries.

In those cases, days off from school rose with floodwaters in 2008-09 as students and staff were sent home to build dikes and sandbag farmsteads and their communities.

The Kindred School District called off school for 14 days in 2008-09. School was out for two weeks alone to allow students to help in flood fights. At the start of the two-week stretch, Oxbow was threatened by the Red River. Then the Sheyenne grabbed attention when it broke its banks and threatened Davenport and Kindred, Superintendent Steve Hall said.

In 2008-09, Valley City schools called 13 days off, many of them to allow students to sandbag in and around the city as the Sheyenne River rose.

The Litchville-Marion (N.D.) School District, between the Sheyenne and James rivers, had 12 weather-related cancellations in 2008-09.

The Hankinson School District near the Wild Rice River in Richland County, N.D., had 11 weather-related days in 2008-09.

Students in Wahpeton, N.D., on the confluence of the Bois de Sioux and Ottertail rivers, took 10 weather-related days off in 2008-09. Breckenridge, on the Minnesota side of that confluence, saw nine weather-related days called that year.

North of Fargo-Moorhead on the east bank of the Red River, Norman County West reported eight of its 10 storm days in 2008-09 tied to flooding, and five of six days in 2010-11. Otherwise, Norman County West had just two other storm days in 2012-13.

In 2008-09, Fargo Public Schools had nine weather-related days off and West Fargo had 10 days off.

Campbell said other than a couple of days taken off for blizzards, most of the days taken off by Fargo in 2008-09 were to allow students and teachers to take part in the local flood fight.

Similarly, of the Moorhead School District’s 11 weather-related days in 2008-09, eight of them were for flooding, district officials said. Moorhead’s public schools called off only five more days for bad weather in the next four years.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583