Supt Malkas, Asst Supt. Avlas, DPW's Pizetti weigh in
by Steev Riccardo
WEBSTER – Today Webster was one of very few school districts in the area to call a snow delay; last week it was the only one that didn't cancel or delay, and that caused a bit of an uproar with town residents, mostly parents, on the Webster public schools’ Facebook page.
Webster Superintendent of Schools Barbara Malkas, who lives in Worcester, relies on input from Assistant Superintendent Ted Avlas and the Webster Highway Department before making her final decision on whether or not school should be cancelled.
“At 4:30 I was in contact with my assistant superintendent, who is a resident of Webster, because I am living in Worcester and sometimes even that distance can make a difference in what people are experiencing in the town,” said Malkas. “Prior to his conversation with me he was in contact with the Highway Department. At 5 a.m. it was looking pretty positive. We had a weather prediction of 2-4 inches of snow, which is not much, and the total accumulation for Webster was predicted at 3 inches from the National Weather Service. The Highway Department had already done their chemical pre-treatment of the roads and were feeling that when full staff came in at 6 a.m. they would have the plows ready to go and they felt they would be ready to handle it. What a difference an hour makes.”
Malkas was also in touch with fellow area school superintendents at 5 a.m. and one of them, Oxford’s Superintendent of Schools Allen Himmelberger, told her that he thought that they were going to have school. “I was making the decision thinking we are not looking at 6-8 inches or a foot of snow,” said Malkas. “This is 2-4 inches in New England and I am hearing the roads are good to go. Then I left at 5:45 and took my 20-minute commute which turned into an hour-long commute and the conditions were not good, and I own that.”
Before she left her house she posted the following message on the Webster School’s Facebook page:
“DPW says the roads in Webster are treated and passable and with only 2-4 inches of snow predicted Webster Public Schools will be open and on time. If commuting, please leave a little extra travel time.”
At 6:45 the roads in Webster were not plowed and the situation was not good. Even Malkas was surprised at “what a mess” the roads were when she arrived in Webster around that time.
Naturally, the residents were in an uproar and let the Webster Facebook page and the schools know about it. By 7:30 there was word that Bartlett High School Assistant Principle Helen Rowlings was in a car accident on her way to school. She was OK but her car was not. Things were not going as smoothly as planned.
Malkas then posted the following message on Facebook at 9:00:
“So, at 5:00 a.m. when I was in contact with my Assistant Superintendent (a Webster resident), who had already been in contact with the Highway Department. I made a decision based on the National Weather Service Forecast and the information provided to me. These are never easy decisions, and this one was not one of my best. I am owning it and plan to review our protocol with all involved to improve the sharing of good and honest information. My decisions are predicated on the information provided to me and this is imperative. I do want to thank the highway department workers who were out treating roads and trying to plow as fast as possible. I also want to thank the heroes of the day-our bus drivers who did the amazing job of getting students to school safely. As I look out the window, I see that the snow has stopped, so this will allow us to get kids who are in school home safely. As always, we support the decisions of parents in the best interests of their children.”
According to Malkas, the decision is made early because the school bus people need to know by 5:45 at the latest and by that time they already have buses running.”
“We typically do a thorough review,” said Assistant Superintendent and Business Manager Ted Avlas. “I was up at 3:30, we called the DPW and asked them how the road conditions were, they had been treating the roads, the problem we had was that the snow that fell just fell all at once. We were anticipating something that would last from 4:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., but all the snow came down at once. It was the perfect storm, so to speak.”
Ken Pizzetti, superintendent of the Webster Highway Department, said, “At 5:20 I told Ted that we were going into mode 2, which means it's dropping the snow fast enough where even though we were using the de-icer, it was dropping snow pretty fast. At that point he told me that Superintendent Malkas had already made her mind up.
“I got a couple of calls from teachers at the schools who said they heard that it was me, Malkas, and the assistant superintendent that make this call. I do not make that call,” said Pizzetti. “The assistant superintendent goes off a recommendation. At 4:00 a.m. there was light snow. At 5:20 I told Ted (Avlas) that it was not looking good, and he told me they had already decided. I don't make those calls. I don't know about other towns, but I can tell you that here in Webster we never have.”
Malkas said, “I think everyone was making their best decision on the conditions as they were being predicted and what we knew at the time. If I could do a rewind now I wouldn’t have cancelled, I would have had a delay.
“What we are going to do as we move forward is that we are going to re-evaluate our protocol, I am going to involve bus operations as part of our decision-making process because they are involved with other districts so they get a little bit better information,” she said.
“In retrospect, the best thing would have been to call a delay because by 8:30 it had stopped and the DPW had done their job and everything was passable by then,” said Avlas.
Pizzetti said, “I think between Ted and Barbara, they thought we would do a good enough job on the roads, but it's really hard to keep up with a freak storm like that.”
Superintendent Malkas called the bus drivers “the heroes of the day. They did a phenomenal job, they had a couple of roads that were not passable so they had to wait for road crews to clear them but there were no accidents but there were heavy delays. They made the right call.”
Ironically yesterday, with less than an inch of snow on the ground, school was delayed an hour in Webster. Asked about that, Avlas said it was just a coincidence.
Talk in the past suggests that one reason that Webster doesn’t like to cancel school is because of the number of kids that rely on the schools breakfast and lunch plans for food every day. Malkas offered this comment. “I think that Dr. Ciardi (previous Webster Schools superintendent) and myself would both be mindful of that fact that 50% of our kids eat when they come to school, and that is an additional burden that maybe some of our fellow districts don’t bear.”
She did say that the food plan had nothing to do with this particular decision.
As far as being the one that posts on the Facebook page, Malkas said. “This is the changing of the times. I don’t think any of my predecessors were really prepared for what social media has become. We are 24-7 in this job. We need to look and how we use social media in the future.”