Snow is busting town budgets, eating up school calendar

Nancy Miller, her daughter Helen, 3, and dog Roscoe take a walk Tuesday into the snow-draped woods of Bluff Point State Park in Groton.
Nancy Miller, her daughter Helen, 3, and dog Roscoe take a walk Tuesday into the snow-draped woods of Bluff Point State Park in Groton. Sean D. Elliot/The Day Buy Photo

As school districts and public works departments brace for more winter weather, both snow removal budgets and school calendars across the region were already feeling the strain of 11 storms Tuesday.

Norwich Public Works Director Barry Ellison said the cost of this week's storms hasn't been tallied yet, but by the end of January, he was already worried about the accounts that handle snow removal costs - namely overtime, fuel and salt.

By the end of the month, the department had used 1,950 tons of its 2,300-ton salt supply and spent 80 percent of its $140,000 overtime budget - a cost that may cut into funding for spring projects.

In Montville and New London, the snow budget has not yet run out, but Montville Public Works Director Don Bourdeau and New London Mayor Daryl Justin Finizio said another round of storms could change that.

And elsewhere, funds have long since been expended.

Waterford's Department of Public Works has already purchased more road salt than it had budgeted for. And in Ledyard, Public Works Director Steve Masalin said snow removal costs have exceeded the $212,000 budget by $30,000 - not counting the overtime today's storm will incur, or the additional salt that an anticipated weekend storm would call for.

As public works director for the town since 1996, Masalin said he can recall a few record-breaking years in terms of snow accumulation and the ensuing costs. Just five years ago, the town overspent its snow budget by 73 percent.

Though this winter hasn't seen a lot of inches, he said, the repeated winter weather events have required a lot of "attention and salt."

Masalin said the Finance Committee will meet this week to discuss how to address the deficit.

But money isn't the only concern. Preston First Selectman Robert Congdon said the engine blew on one of the town's six plow trucks this week, leaving the town short-handed for today's storm. Congdon doubted he could rent or borrow a replacement in time.

"We're getting in trouble real fast," Congdon said. "And it's taking a toll on the equipment."

Finizio said New London has recently lost two plows to engine failure - one that is more than 20 years old and out of commission for good, and one 1996 model that is repairable but not in time for this week's snow.

Snow days adding up

Students may be celebrating a snow day today, but they may be paying for it come June.

As of Tuesday afternoon, most superintendents had not yet made a call about whether to close school today. Stonington Superintendent Van Riley described it as "questionable," and other districts said they were waiting for updated weather reports.

But they were sure of one thing: Too many missed school days will mean make-up days at the end of the year, pushing the end of school for many districts back to mid-June.

Several districts have already seen between three and six snow days. For many, a cancellation today would make five snow days - meaning an extra week of school.

"Looking back over the past years, it does seem like (the number of cancellations) is higher than average for winter," said Salem Superintendent Joseph Onofrio.

State statute prohibits extending the school year beyond June 30, so if it snows enough, districts could dock other vacation time, possibly cutting into students' spring breaks.

In Preston, the Tuesday after President's Day was used as a make-up day for snow so often that it was eliminated from the school calendar as a vacation day.

"Two years ago, I just gave up," said Preston Superintendent John Welch.

But for most superintendents, spring break will be off-limits.

"We're not anywhere near that," said Riley, whose district has had six snow days so far this school year.

"Unless it got crazy -I mean, really crazy - I don't think we'd take from April," Onofrio said.

The effect is less pronounced in New London schools, which Superintendent Nicholas Fischer said have had just three days off compared with the four to six cancellations for inland districts.

One reason for that disparity is that districts south of Interstate 95 often experience different weather from those north of it, he said.

New London also has fewer closings because more than 90 percent of the students ride the bus and many rely on school to stay warm and get enough to eat - factors the superintendent weighs in his decision.

Districts don't always make up every snow day, so there's no guarantee as to what each Board of Education will decide. Last year, said Onofrio, the Salem Board of Education approved a 180-day school year rather than the usual 182-day year, allowing kids to get to summer camp and vacations in time.

And at Norwich Free Academy, despite four weather-related closings so far, there are "no plans at present to make any adjustments to the school calendar," said school spokesman Geoff Serra.

k.catalfamo@theday.com

a.isaacs@theday.com

Staff writer Claire Bessette contributed to this report.

Snow-covered houses and trees lighten the landscape Tuesday on the northern side of Pattagansett Lake in East Lyme.
Snow-covered houses and trees lighten the landscape Tuesday on the northern side of Pattagansett Lake in East Lyme. Tim Cook/The Day Buy Photo
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