As the majority of town residents lie fast asleep during a morning snowstorm, the clock is ticking loudly for Superintendent of Schools Claudia Bach. Should she cancel school? Delay the opening?

Ninety minutes is all Bach has on a typical snowy morning to make her decision.

Bach wakes around 4:15 a.m. and methodically begins her routine, which starts with a phone call to the town highway department. No matter her decision, Bach said she must come to a conclusion by 5:45 a.m. at the latest, when many teachers begin their trek to the school district.

"I get less sleep during the winter," said Bach. "I'm always wishing for an easy call and it seems recently like they haven't been easy."

With more than 30 inches of snowfall recorded in town already this winter, Bach has made several tough calls -- and heard about them from parents upset with her decisions.

On Dec. 13, Bach declined to call for an early release as a storm dumped more than 6 inches of snow on the area. As a result, school buses were caught in the widespread gridlock and some students didn't get home until 5:30 p.m.

Then a week later, on Dec. 20, Bach ordered an hour-long delayed opening before increased snowfall and a change in the forecast forced her to call for an additional early release. After arriving between 8:45 and 9:45 a.m. that morning, some students were on buses home by 11:45 a.m.

Winter hadn't even arrived yet, Bach pointed out, but the weather associated with the season had been in full force for weeks by then. With the first day of winter falling on Dec. 22, town plows had been called out four times.

"Mother Nature has not been very kind to school superintendents," said Bach. "It looks like it could turn into being a heavy winter. And, you know, in a minute that could change."

Difficult season already

With more than half of its budgeted $1.3 million already spent this year on sand, salt, calcium chloride, private plow service and employee overtime expenses related to clearing Andover's roads, the town highway department expects to use reserve funds to keep up with the snowfall in 2008 if the weather continues to be severe.

According to Highway Superintendent Christopher Cronin, as many as 180 pieces of equipment are put to use by the Department of Public Works during a full-fledged snowstorm.

Cronin said that of the 31 inches of snow measured in town so far, the two storms on Dec. 13 and 20 were "unique events" that posed particular challenges to Bach as she made her weather-related decisions.

"Those are tough calls. Superintendents all over the country and all over the state have to make them. I wouldn't want to be in her position," said School Committee member Deb Silberstein. "I think she's done a wonderful job communicating with parents and the community."

After 13 years as a superintendent, 10 of them in Andover, Bach said she had never dealt with a situation where school buses were trapped in bumper-to-bumper traffic for as long as they were on Dec. 13.

"With so many buses delayed it was impossible at some schools for principals to call parents," said Bach, who received multiple e-mails from parents informing her that they were also stuck in the gridlock coming home from work.

"I don't like the idea of kids home alone," she said. "The last thing I'll do will be to have an early release."

Numerous parents did complain about the decision to keep kids at school, prompting Bach to send out a letter on Dec. 17 explaining her rationale for the move.

Then on Dec. 20 came Andover's first early release in a decade, according to Bach, who earlier that morning had decided against a two-hour delayed opening and settled for a one-hour delay.

Bach said the forecast that morning called for between one and three inches of snow.

"By the time it was all over we had eight inches of snow," Bach said.

Afternoon preschool and kindergarten were also cancelled on Dec. 20

"The weather changed as the day progressed, so we had to make adjustments as we went along," said Bach. "It's not a perfect science by any means."

The decision for the early release that day was made during a principals' meeting as weather worsened, Bach said. One of the topics she discussed with principals was how to best deal with weather-related decisions.

"It was an opportunity for us to review, and we did do that," said Bach. "We discussed it, and then literally put the decisions into practice within minutes."

Bach said she later received dozens of e-mails in support of the release. No buses were caught in traffic, she said.

"I didn't expect a response," said Bach. "I got a wonderful, positive, just a slew of e-mails. All the children did get home safely and that's what counts. "

"No matter which way you go, you get people who are upset," said School Committee member Arthur Barber. "No matter what she does, there are people who think it's the wrong decision."

Though often difficult, Bach said her weather decisions take a back seat to departmental budgets, hiring and curriculum work when it comes to the hardest aspects of her job.

"It's a very, very minor part of my job," she said. "I have to be sensitive to the safety issues. That's very important. Making a snow decision is more nuts and bolts. I will make mistakes, obviously, but it's not the hardest part of my job by a long shot."

BOX: Making the call

Superintendent Claudia Bach's typical morning schedule after or during a snowstorm:

4 to 4:30 a.m. | Wake up, turn on computer and television, call town highway department, take a walk outside or go for a drive to better determine weather conditions.

5 a.m. | Check local television network reports, consult with town-specific weather reports available on computer through Public Works Department, call and confer with superintendents in North Andover, Methuen, Lawrence and at the Greater Lawrence Technical School.

5:30 a.m. | Make decision to either cancel school or have a delayed opening. Call secretary, school technology director, transportation coordinator, six television stations, multiple radio stations, record new phone message and send it to parents.

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