Snow jam forces Fulton Schools to review decision-making

‘We own the mistakes,’ admits school superintendent



NORTH FULTON, Ga. – By 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 29, the last of the students who had been in school since the previous morning were finally sent home. Administrators, teachers and staff who pulled 36-plus hour shifts alongside the students also gave up their posts and went home.

But while the warm temperatures returned and “snowmageddon” gave up its hold on the region, the crisis moved inevitably to the blame game. The questions came easily: How did this happen? Who should be held accountable? Why didn’t the plan work?

The answers may be longer in coming as officials with the Fulton County School System reevaluate their decision-making prior to the Jan. 28 snowstorm.

Superintendent Robert Avossa, along with key staff, remained in the system headquarters in South Atlanta until word came down that the last child had been safely transported home. The rumors Avossa had returned to his North Fulton home ahead of the storm were not accurate.

Avossa is still working on answers, but readily admits mistakes were made and something must change.

“We own the mistakes,” said Avossa on Jan. 30. “The communication should have been better…we should have called school [off]. Moving forward, we may change the way my team makes decisions in the process. We are going to look at everything.”

In his defense, Fulton Schools was not alone in its perceived mishandling of the snowstorm. Criticism is being heaped upon the governor’s office, emergency management officials, the Georgia Department of Transportation, private industry and about anyone else who got in the way of people moving from point A to point B.

The process of cancelling or dismissing students early includes advice from staff who have looked at the situation from every angle. But, ultimately, the decision rests with Avossa.

“At the end of the day, I am responsible and I am the one held accountable,” he said. “But I’m an educator…I don’t know a ton about transportation, so I’ve put the best people in those jobs to give me the best advice.”

Transportation officials were taking the most heat, but Avossa defended Lynn Simpson, Fulton’s transportation director, saying she’s the “best in the business” with decades of experience in the transportation field.

In a system of 95,000 students, about 93,000 spent the night in their homes, leaving the remaining 2,000 forced to stay in school overnight. Most were students who relied on bus transportation to get home, and the icy streets and gridlocked traffic made the trip impossible.

Fulton Schools faces challenges no other school system faces, said Avossa. Hundreds of kids live in South Fulton and make the drive through the city of Atlanta to attend charter schools in Sandy Springs and North Fulton. In a typical day, the drive can take over an hour. During the snow storm, the trip took hours, or was impossible, forcing many buses to return to schools to offload kids.

“In my 20 years of education, I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Avossa.

While many, including Fulton officials, were quick to point fingers at inaccurate weather reports, those assertions quickly fizzled. A timeline of alerts and warnings clearly indicate the National Weather Service predicted with accuracy the chain of weather events that occurred.

Avossa said his big “take away” was the need to make decisions closer to the schools, in each of the four learning communities – not at the executive level.

“The area superintendents have a better [sense] of their individual communities, and they know their schools and parents and their community reaction better than anyone,” said Avossa.

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