Weekend weather fuels criticism

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Parents say Oldham County Schools made bad calls when faced with severe weather on Friday, snow on Monday

By Tracy Harris

It’s been a long weekend for members of the Oldham County Schools’ administration.

Severe weather at the end of the school day Friday and late Sunday evening forced district officials to face multiple tough decisions about having schools open.

Tornados touched down in Kentucky and Indiana Friday, killing at least 34 people and causing major damage to several towns.

None touched down in Oldham County, although a fire station in nearby Milton was destroyed. 

Then, several inches of snow covered the county Sunday night.

In both situations, Assistant Superintendent Rick McHargue admits the old adage about hindsight is true, but believes the district made sound decisions.

McHargue said Friday was a unique situation that prompted a lot of soul-searching in light of how severe the weather became.

District officials did not want to dismiss students early — it wasn’t clear how many parents would be home in time to meet younger children.

“We didn’t want to send middle and elementary students home to a locked house,” he said.

Parents had the option of picking up their children early, he said, which many did.

Looking back, McHargue regrets more the decision to send school busses out at 3:30 p.m.

Discussions with National Weather Service personnel led district officials to believe there was an hour window before severe weather came to Oldham County — almost exactly how much time is needed to get all the students home.

McHargue said all the students arrived home safely by 4:30 p.m. Friday, but unfortunately, the storm cell arrived earlier.

When the tornado warning came at 3:50, middle and high school busses were well into their routes, he said.

Bus drivers are trained in how to handle severe weather situations, McHargue said.

In the event of a tornado warning, all drivers are contacted through the radio system. Drivers are advised to detour and head away from the storm’s path if possible or to stop at a safe location at the driver’s discretion.

McHargue said bus drivers did a great job handling the situation Friday.

La Grange resident Barbara Creasy said she picked up her grandson early from daycare, where staff had moved children into the basement already.

While impressed with the daycare’s foresight — moving the children downstairs in advance so there wasn’t a stressful emergency situation — she pointed out tornadoes are unpredictable.

If the tornado had missed a school but wiped out a subdivision, she wonders how many people would be wishing children had been kept at school.

“I don’t know how many high school students would heed the warnings and be in a basement,” she said.

The district has dismissed early due to weather once in the last eight years, McHargue said. 

That time, in February 2008, district administrators faced harsh criticism after deciding to dismiss before lunch. In that situation, parents complained they were caught by surprise and had to scramble to get home to their children.

Early Monday morning, McHargue and other district officials faced a new dilemma: several inches of fluffy snow that fell overnight. 

McHargue and his crew started driving county roads at 3:30 a.m. before meeting at 5 a.m. to discuss the district’s plan.

The state and county highway departments did a great job salting the roads, he said.

But in one place, the hills of Ky. 53 in Ballardsville, the road froze after officials drove it.

Several cars slid off the road, resulting in multiple crashes. No injuries were reported but the road was shut down for almost two hours, delaying multiple school busses.

Bus driver Garry Moore said he sat in traffic on Ky. 53 for 25 minutes but that some busses were delayed for more than an hour.

“A two-hour delay would have been able to keep the kids safe and to get to school on time,” he said.

Parent Nancy Paradis agreed. She said she couldn’t make it up the hill because of ice and had to turn around.

“Then I sat behind a school bus for 45 minutes until Oldham County Police came with a salt truck,” she said. She saw stranded school busses and school staff members’ cars stuck as well, she said.

“We were all so worried,” she said.

Similar situations have happened on that section of road in previous winters.

But, McHargue said, the rest of the school district roads were in excellent shape.

District officials spent much of Monday evaluating Friday’s decisions, and McHargue said officials learned a lesson. 

He hopes the district can communicate its plans to parents better in future weather emergencies via its own website and that of The Oldham Era.

“We can communicate our intentions and our plans better,” he said.