Late decision to close schools draws heat

March 2, 2009 2:31:22 PM PST
Snowstorms can bring deep piles of trouble for mayors in election years, and the moderate Nor'easter that blew through New York City on Monday threatened to dump more than snow on Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is running for a third term this year. Bloomberg's administration decided relatively late - 5:39 a.m. - to call the snow day for its 1.1 million public school students, prompting a last-minute scramble for many parents and teachers, some of whom said they were not even aware that school was canceled. It is a rare day that snow disrupts business in the nation's largest public school district - the last time was Jan. 28, 2004.

Ann Garbie, a parent coordinator at an elementary school in Staten Island, recalled at least one school closing years ago that was announced the night before. This time, she said, "it was very short notice."

Bloomberg, who has little patience for anyone who complains, threw political caution to the wind and tartly suggested that families and teachers who didn't think to check on school closings by calling the city's 311 hot line might benefit from an extra lesson or two.

"If you got up this morning, looked outside, and the question didn't come to you right away, 'Hmm, I wonder whether or not school is going to be open today,' and you didn't know enough to call 311, I would suggest another day in school's probably a good idea," the mayor said at a midday snow briefing.

"I mean, come on," he added. "Looking outside, it's a legitimate question and you know how to get an answer."

An aide tried to backtrack later and insisted that Bloomberg was referring only to teachers, and not to students or parents.

During his news conference, Bloomberg said the decision to cancel school came later than usual because there is always the hope that the storm will weaken or take a turn and miss the city.

In the end, he said, the call was based on the accumulation - reaching nearly 8 inches in Queens and Staten Island - plus wind conditions, gusting near 35 mph.

The call came so late Monday that school buses were already starting out on their routes. Officials said no students had been picked up yet.

Across the city, parents patched together plans to accommodate their snowed-in children.

Cheryl J. Fish said she didn't have enough time to arrange child care for her 9-year-old son, so she hustled between her apartment and her job teaching literature at a community college across the street.

"I ran back and forth, basically. I taught a class and I left him in the house, and I came back and made him lunch," Fish said. "Normally, I would try to get a babysitter. ... But it was so last minute, I didn't really have a lot of time."

Bloomberg insisted that the political implications of snow have "never occurred" to him during his seven years in office. But they were on the minds of some in his administration.

Sanitation Commissioner John Doherty, who often begins a snowy day by going out to ride around and inspect the streets himself, happened to swing through a part of Queens where residents still remember a political avalanche that rumbled there 30 years ago.

That 1969 storm brought just 15 inches of snow, but clouded Mayor John Lindsay's campaign for the entire year after some streets in Queens were left unplowed for days. He was long criticized for his Manhattan-centric attitude, and barely won re-election that November.

Doherty reported to Bloomberg that the neighborhood, once "very sensitive for a mayor," looked clear on Monday.