By Daniel de Vise and Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Washingtonians have bickered for decades over whether the region is too quick to close its schools for snow and ice. Now they're arguing over whether one of their newest neighbors, who happens to be president, was right to take sides in the perennial debate.
Either way, President Obama was off to a quick start in fulfilling his promise to embrace Washington's ways. It's a winter pastime for residents to second-guess officials who close schools at the first whiff of winter weather, and the president dived right in.
"My children's school was canceled today," Obama said, speaking to reporters before a meeting with business leaders. "Because of what? Some ice? . . . We're going to have to apply some flinty Chicago toughness to this town."
The remarks might have captured Washington's attention as much as anything Obama has said since taking office a week ago. With those offhand comments, the president homed in on the one thing that riles Washingtonians every winter. His words reflected a common sentiment among recent arrivals from up North or out West: The denizens of Washington are weather wimps. Life around the Capital Beltway grinds to a halt for climatic events that would barely register in, say, Chicago.
"While I don't always agree with President Obama's policies, I certainly agree with him on his statement today," said District native Damon Ehrlich of Olney, a father of two.
Some residents have moved here from more southern climes, and there, perhaps, lies the problem. Experience with snow, sleet and ice varies from house to house, from block to block. So why risk it?
"With all due respect for President Obama, the problem with Washington, D.C., is unlike Chicago, we get a lot of ice," said Leslie Darr, a Loudoun County mother of three.
On neighborhood Internet lists, lunch lines and the comments section of washingtonpost.com, the reaction to the president's remarks was visceral.
In one sense, the president's gripe was understandable. In Chicago, where his daughters previously attended school, the public schools haven't closed for weather since a 1999 ice storm.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said it would take "a hurricane, an avalanche or a tidal wave" to close schools in Chicago, where until recently he was the schools chief. In Washington, the threshold for closure is somewhat lower.
As for Obama, he kept at it. "I'm saying that when it comes to the weather, folks in Washington don't seem to be able to handle things."
And in the afternoon, transfixed by the topic, he was heard to ask someone: "Aren't you a little surprised that they canceled school for my kids?"
Area school leaders realized the importance of their decisions even before the leader of the free world weighed in.
"We had extreme, icy conditions on our roadways today," said Steve Simon, spokesman for the Montgomery County school system. "The sidewalks are just treacherous. We could have had so many injuries."
Fairfax County schools shut partly for parents "who are not used to this weather," said spokesman Paul Regnier.
Many suburban schools shut down yesterday, and D.C. schools delayed opening, because freezing rain overnight left cars and roads coated with a thick gloss of ice. Many private schools also closed, including Sidwell Friends, which Malia and Sasha Obama attend.
Some people said the president should be making nice with his new town. One reader wrote on washingtonpost.com: "If Obama wants to run the schools, he should resign and run for the School Board."
It was the second consecutive snow day for many students in the area. Montgomery schools have closed for weather eight times in the past four school years, Simon said, typical for the region.
At Malia and Sasha's former school, snow days are the stuff of myth.
"I've been here six years, and we haven't closed them yet," not through drifting feet-thick snows, not through freezing winds off Lake Michigan that bring the chill down to 40 below, said David Magill, headmaster of University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
"There are kids playing in the snow outside my window right now," he said. "They're building a fort."
Chicago obsesses about keeping streets clear. A mayor was voted out of office in 1979 over a blizzard that shuttered the city for days. Snowfall averages 38 inches a year in Chicago, 15 inches in Washington. Chicago owns more snowplows.
"I come from a shoveling culture," said Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.
At Sidwell Friends, Associate Head of School Ellis Turner replied to the president's challenge in an e-mail to The Washington Post.
"No question, the president is right," Turner wrote. "The next time it snows, we would like to invite him to help us make the decision. His involvement will make it much easier to explain to our students why they won't be able to spend the day sleeping and sledding."
Turner added a tongue-in-cheek reference to the president's school-age years in the Pacific islands: "Or, I suppose Sidwell Friends could merge with Punahou, move our classrooms to Hawaii and never worry about the weather again."
Staff writers Glenn Kessler and Richard Leiby contributed to this report.