Schools' snow day no day off for crew

He's got driveways, parking lots and sidewalks that need to be shoveled, plowed and salted. He has snow-clogged vents and roof drains to clear. Bus routes to survey, broken windows to replace, frozen locks to fix and water pipes to inspect - all of it has to be done before schools can be declared ready to reopen.

Despite this, Jim Parker is wildly optimistic. Some might call him crazy.

"My goal is to have all the schools ready for tomorrow," Parker, the maintenance supervisor for Carroll County public schools, told his boss yesterday morning. "I've got four contractors working for me and between that and what we have, we'll have 'em open."

With Baltimore-area schools closed all week so far, maintenance crews and custodial staffs across the region have been scrambling to get kids back in class after the worst winter storm to hit Maryland since record-keeping began in 1871.

Parker's crew is no different, and the to-do list doesn't even begin to take into account the tasks beyond school systems' control. There are hundreds of school bus turnaround loops that counties must plow, tens of thousands of bus stops to clear, and miles and miles of roads from which county and state plows must carve two passable lanes before school buses can safely make their rounds.

"People think we make one swipe with a snow plow and we're ready to go," Carroll schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said. "It's much more than that."

Each school system handles snow removal and school reopening preparations differently. The Baltimore County and Howard County school districts leave clearing school lots and lanes up to the counties.

Anne Arundel, Harford and Carroll school crews handle the job themselves, relying on their fleets of small plows as well as contractors, who often must finish work for the state and county before they have time to help area school systems.

In Carroll County, Jim Parker coordinates the effort.

With a text pager and cell phone strapped to his belt and his hand never far from the CB radio in his Chevrolet Blazer, Parker is a blur of activity. He headed out to work yesterday at 5 a.m. - 7 1/2 hours after he called it quits the night before.

"Tonight, it may be 10 or 11 o'clock before we're finished," said Parker, a plain-talking man who grew up in Taneytown and has worked in the school system's maintenance department for 13 years, "but we will finish."

It was a declaration he would back away from by the end of the morning, despite the 16-hour days that he and his crew have been putting in since the snow stopped falling.

But in the hours between his pronouncement and the noon deadline the superintendent had set for deciding whether to close schools the next day, Parker and his staff continued their frenetic pace.

He drove from school to school to see whether entrances, lots and student drop-off lanes had been plowed, and how well. He scowled at snow-covered parking lots.

And he shook his head at the handiwork of kids who scrawled the name of a certain part of the male anatomy in billboard-size letters on a snowy hill beside Westminster High's stadium. "We'll have to go out there," Parker said, "and mess that up."

He ordered tile to replace the wet carpet in a Westminster High classroom. He checked on a fuel delivery at Westminster's West Middle School.

And at every turn, he handed out encouragement to exhausted custodians who have been shoveling and chipping ice for three days straight and offered assurances to concerned school administrators.

"Hey, Kate, how deep's the snow?" he asked Catherine Engel, principal of the Carroll County Career and Technology Center in Westminster, on the phone. Told it was "butt-high," he burst into laughter.

"OK, we're going to get some other schools cleared up this morning and when other people free up, I'll send them over to help you," Parker said. "Are you in the worst shape? Yeah, I think that's safe to say. But we'll get you."

With only 10 small dump truck plows, nine four-wheel-drive trucks with plows and three service trucks fitted with blades in the school district's own fleet, Parker is always recruiting help.

On a shopping center parking lot in Hampstead yesterday, Parker spotted a man on a skid-loader whose work appeared to be nearing completion.

He handed him a card and asked the man to bring his equipment - a compact but powerful one-man vehicle with a bucket scoop on the front - to a nearby elementary school that was still buried under more than 2 feet of heavy snow.

There was no discussion of fees - "if I think it's too high, I'll dicker with him later," Parker said - as he directed the man to Spring Garden Elementary. There, while two men fought to clear the front sidewalk with a snow blower and town public works crews tried to break through the towering pile of snow they had unintentionally pushed in front of the school's unplowed driveway, Parker updated school officials on his department's progress.

By about 11:40 a.m., it was clear that not quite everything he had promised might get done - at least not without Parker's crews staying up all night.

"One more day would be better for everyone," he told James Doolan, district transportation director, who had called Parker just before heading into a meeting with the superintendent.

"Some roads in the county only have one lane and a half where there should be two, and if you could give us one more day, we could get more done at the schools. But like I said, we plan on working through, either way."

Twelve minutes later, as he was finishing up a hot ham and cheese sandwich, the shrill ring of Parker's cell phone signaled a decision had been made.

School would be canceled today, Parker's boss, facilities director Raymond Prokop, told him.

"You're not doing it on my behalf, are you?" Parker asked. Told that the real problem was the county's back roads, he said, "You just took a little bit of weight off my shoulder."

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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