Prince George's school officials, accused earlier of failing to seek help promptly for snowbound children during Wednesday's blizzard, said yesterday that the blame belongs with an ill-prepared county government that left roads too clogged for children to get home.
"If the county had cleared the roads, we would've gotten our kids home," school spokesman Brian J. Porter said.
Since the surprise Veterans Day storm that stranded hundreds of children in schools and buses, fingers of blame have been pointed back and forth.
Prince George's school officials particularly have been on the defensive, saying that their decision to keep schools open that day was based on faulty forecasts of only flurries.
County Executive Parris Glendening, while saying he was not pinpointing blame, questioned during a news conference Thursday whether school authorities acted quickly enough to seek help from other county agencies once it was evident that children were unable to make it home from schools.
Superintendent John A. Murphy declined to comment directly yesterday on criticisms about the handling of the snow emergency.
Speaking for school administrators, however, Porter maintained yesterday that they were in constant contact with county emergency agencies Wednesday. And they blamed snow-choked roads for preventing many school buses from even leaving school grounds.
Glendening said county and school officials had not coordinated their emergency services, adding that the county was virtually unaware of the scope of the school problem until Fire Chief Jim Estepp contacted them around 9:30 p.m.
But school spokesman Porter said that school officials had been in touch with fire, police and emergency agencies throughout the day, exchanging updates on opening and closing times and seeking any additional information they might have about when roads would be cleared.
"The problem was the county government had the day off," Porter said, referring to the Veterans Day holiday.
Later calls that afternoon focused on schools that were having trouble getting children home, Porter said. Radio and television began reporting the problem early that afternoon, he said.
"If everybody else knew we were in trouble, where were they?" Porter asked.
John Davey, Glendening's administrative officer who coordinated the snow emergency plan from his home near University Park, said that information about the school emergency never reached the proper authorities.
"What wasn't exchanged was the request for assistance once things got out of hand," he said yesterday.
Davey said he learned about the stranded children after a 6 p.m. television newscast but was still unaware of the seriousness of the problem. Davey said he kept his own two children at home Wednesday, although they usually walk to the neighborhood public school.
"I was sitting at my dining room table and I couldn't understand why they were sending children to school. I told my kids they could sit right where they are."
Critics of the county's snow-plowing effort have suggested that the holiday slowed the response.
About 1:15 p.m. Wednesday, as the storm raged, the associate director of the county's highway maintenance office reported that 175 of his 290-member force was working. The associate director, Sylvester Helminiak, said that 30 of the department's 65 trucks were not equipped to remove snow, and his staff at the time was trying to unbolt leaf-blowing equipment from them so that snow shovels could be attached.
At his news conference, Glendening said, "It is clear we need closer coordination between the decision-makers," and he announced that Davey, his chief administrative officer, had talked to Murphy about ways to improve the handling of snow emergencies.
More than 400 children were still in schools after 10 p.m., and hundreds of others were stuck in paralyzed buses. The majority of the county's 103,000 students made it home earlier and without injury. One school reported that only 50 of its 600 students got to school that morning.
School buses remained parked outside of Kenilworth Elementary in Bowie, Porter said, because traffic on the major thoroughfare near the school was blocked in both directions: "We said wait until the roads are clear, and they waited and waited and waited."
Staff writer Jeffrey Yorke contributed to this report.