A Snow Decision is No Decision When the Decision Comes Too Late

Leadership Lessons from Snow Days in Georgia

(My apologies as I get a little local here, but this stuff really ticks me off.)

It snowed in Georgia yesterday; this is news. Some towns, like Athens, received as much as six inches of snow. Gwinnett County, Georgia (north of Atlanta) got a little more than an inch. To anyone living in Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia or Buffalo this wouldn’t be considered anything more than a dusting. To Georgia, this is a major event. This is big news.

As my kids played in an inch-and-a-half of the white stuff yesterday, they continued to ask if school was going to be canceled on Monday. This was 6:30 PM Sunday – and over an hour had passed since the last flake fell in our yard – of course the schools would be open. The roads were clear and the great melting had already begun. Certainly there would be school on Monday.

When we sat down to dinner at 7:30 the kids scanned the local television channels; searching for signs that the Gwinnett County Public Schools would be shuttered in the face of this massive storm.

After dinner, they were surfing the Web for any indication that they could stay up late tonight and sleep in tomorrow. No such luck: the Gwinnet County Schools had announced that they were going to brave the elements and open their doors in the morning. By 9:00 PM the situation remained unchanged. School was on and they were bound for bed. Sure, forecasters expected temperatures to drop below freezing overnight, but school was a go, and these kids were going.

Great Leaders are known for being Great Decision Makers

I hate to break it to you, but the people running our public schools (the district administrators) are generally not great leaders. More often than not they are former educators with so many college degrees that their email signatures take four lines. That’s the problem with administrators: most of them have spent their entire lives in the education system and not a minute in the real world. They’ve never had to live by a P&L or make real personnel decisions. They spend our tax dollars like Monopoly money, and they do all of this with no real accountability.

If they were truly great leaders, they wouldn’t be educators. As noble as the teaching profession is meant to be, our education system is filled with people too afraid to face the business world; too afraid to chase dreams; too afraid to take even minimal risk. A teaching degree is the safest college degree one can achieve. A degree in education is one of the few degree programs (like medicine and law) with a guaranteed title waiting for you on the other end. “In four years, I’ll be a teacher.” “In six years, I’ll be a lawyer.” “In eight years, I’ll be a doctor.”

Deciding to become an educator, like deciding to become a doctor or a lawyer, is safe. Unlike doctors and lawyers, teachers never really put much on the line after college. They move into a union job with no real chance of ever being fired; regardless of their level of incompetence. And, if they’re really incompetent, they can aspire for management.

Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, become administrators.

Great Leaders consider all the Stakeholders

Okay, back to the Great Georgia Blizzard of 2009 as the local news stations are just dying to call it. When we went to bed last night, there was no chance school was to be canceled. We made our plans for today based on this knowledge and drifted off to sleep.

5:30 AM comes fast sometimes, and this morning was no different. Rushing around the house as usual, I woke my oldest son and told him to start getting ready. (His bus arrives just after six.)

After showering and shaving (though not in that order), I turned on the TV for background noise as I got dressed. While the local anchors were marveling over the white stuff as if it was an alien sighting, I heard something that shocked me.

“We repeat: Fulton County, DeKalb County and Gwinnett County Schools are closed today…” they exclaimed.

While I knew my kids would be thrilled, I wondered how this would affect families with two working parents. The businesses in and around Gwinnett County, you see, are open today. Had the bureaucrats of the Gwinnett County School District made this decision while it was still snowing more than twelve hours ago, parents could have made plans to take care of their homebound children. Now many of them will be stuck with tough a decision: do they miss work, or do they leave their kids home alone?

Great Leadership is about Looking Ahead

While we can debate all day about whether or not school should have been canceled in the wake of a storm that “dumped” a miniscule amount of snow, the real issue lies in the fact that J. Alvin Wilbanks, the Gwinnett County Schools superintendent, and his team waited to announce the school closings until well after every student and parent in the district had gone to bed. We single out Wilbanks, a lifelong educator and student who does not have any school-age children, because he is in charge. He actually holds the title of CEO for the Gwinnett County Public Schools, so like all CEOs; the buck should stop with him.

The argument from the school bureaucrats is that the roads became icy overnight; forcing the school closures in the name of safety. Noble reason, indeed; and one with which we probably agree, if not for the timing.

For us, this begs the question: In all the years Wilbanks was in school, teaching school, and administering schools, did he never learn that temperatures generally drop overnight? Was it a shock to Wilbanks’ staff to learn that water freezes when the thermometer drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit? Did no one consider that the melting snow at 6:30 PM Sunday would turn to ice by 5:30 AM Monday? Didn’t anyone bother to check the Weather Channel?

The drop from 34 degrees last evening to 25 this morning was no surprise; it was accurately predicted. Had Wilbanks or his team bothered to look ahead and consider all of the data, the working parents of Gwinnett County would have had plenty of time to make proper arrangements for their children.

As unsafe as it might have been to run the buses this morning, it is equally unsafe to have hundreds of kids home alone today. Let’s hope for everyone’s sake that unlike the Great Georgia Blizzard of 2009, nothing newsworthy happens to the children fending for themselves in big empty houses.