Snow days still vexing leaders even as warmth rolls in

Now that the warmer weather has arrived, Minnesota legislators are still sorting out what to do about the coldest days of 2019.

The school snow day relief bill is being finalized. But what was supposed to be a simple fix for lawmakers hasn’t quite been.

With the sun shining bright, temperatures forecast to break 60 degrees and the snowbanks quickly disappearing, it’s easy to forget that not long ago even the hardiest Minnesotans were shivering through a polar vortex.

School administrators haven’t forgotten. They are still agonizing about what to do with all those days where classes got called off due to extreme cold or heavy snow. The unusually long list of snow days brought them to the Legislature to request a break.

“Time is of the essence. We must come to an agreement sooner rather than later,” said Gary Amoroso, who speaks for the state’s superintendents. He was at the Capitol Tuesday to weigh in on negotiations over a bill to let districts write off some or all of their snow days even if it puts them below the state minimum days of instruction.

Amoroso, the Minnesota Association of School Administrators executive director, said districts could have no choice but to tack on hours to the remaining school days or hold classes later into June if the lawmakers don’t come through.

“Every day we wait is one less day districts have to make decisions," he said. 

"We are looking to get this passed before all of the snow melts," added Roger Aronson, a lobbyist for a state principals association.

There is strong support among lawmakers to grant flexibility. All along, the holdup has been about what shape that takes.

The DFL-led House passed a bill granting a waiver for three subzero days in January. The GOP-run Senate left it entirely up to districts to decide which days and how many to forgive.

DFL Gov. Tim Walz sided on that one with the Senate.

“I think it’s very difficult for these schools. I think this winter certainly took a toll on them," Walz told reporters Tuesday. "And to try to figure out how to make that work and to try to figure out how to run clear into June probably doesn’t work. I have to be perfectly honest with you. It’s about learning the content. It’s not just about days in the seat.”

But Walz was with the House on another score: Guaranteeing that all hourly employees and contract employees get paid for the time away from school or be given an opportunity to make it up.

Without a directive, districts wouldn’t be obligated to pay classroom paraprofessionals, school lunch workers, janitors and others unless their contracts made accommodations.

Rep. Shelly Christensen, DFL-Stillwater, said it wouldn’t be right to look out for the schools but not everyone who makes them function.

“I think we need to think of the human side of this. These are special circumstances. Hopefully this doesn’t happen every year. They are special circumstances," Christensen said. "And the school districts are going to get our help as a state. And as a state I would suggest we also take care of a paraprofessional and a janitor.”

That’s where it gets tricky.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, noted that some employees are partially paid for with federal funds. For instance, pay for some school lunch workers is connected to the meals actually being served, which they aren’t during a snow day.

“We do not want to inadvertently cost our school districts money if we step in and mandate certain contracts to be usurped by our well intentions here in the Legislature,” Nelson said.

Contracts with private bus companies are another thorny item because some depend on routes being run for a minimum number of days.

The snow-day flexibility applies only to this school year. But precedent can be powerful.

Nelson said she’s gotten some pushback since first introducing her relief bill.

“Have we gotten so soft in Minnesota that our kids can’t go to school when there are massive amounts of snow?" Nelson said, recounting comments she's heard. "Let’s just reassure everyone that no Minnesotans have not grown soft. This is an abnormal winter. And it is a very difficult decision for superintendents to close schools.”

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