For the past decade, it’s been standard wisdom that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ busing system is just too big and complex for early dismissals.
But as sleet and freezing rain fell Friday, the district sent some 144,000 students home two hours early. The last bus finished its run at 4:27 p.m., with no major incidents. And because school wasn’t closed for the whole day, there’s no makeup required.
“I’m very pleased,” said Chief Operations Officer Millard House. “We got all of our children home safely and that was the main goal.”
Late starts and early dismissals to cope with winter weather are common in surrounding districts, which are a fraction the size of CMS.
CMS has about 950 buses with more than 100,000 riders, crisscrossing 524 square miles of Mecklenburg County. Sometimes, buses make four morning runs and four afternoon runs.
In recent years, CMS officials have gotten up early and, if they think the risk of snow and ice warrants it, canceled school. This time, with a new superintendent and operations chief in charge, they chose early dismissal.
CMS sent a message to families Thursday night warning of the possibility. They made sure all buses were fully fueled in case the midday turnaround time was shortened.
Early Friday morning, with House driving around Mecklenburg County, Superintendent Heath Morrison consulting by phone from snowy Chicago and a handful of other top officials weighing in, House made the call to launch early dismissal plans.
The district started robocalling parents around 7 a.m. to say schools would let out two hours earlier than usual, starting with high schools at 12:15 p.m.
And, in an odd turn, phones started ringing at Dilworth Elementary School, with people from all over CMS asking about the logistics of getting their kids home.
“Our school has received over 1,000 phone calls and the phone systems are jammed,” said an email from the PTA, urging recipients to forward the message so people would stop calling.
CMS officials were puzzled about why so many people were calling an elementary school. But it turned out that for reasons that still aren’t clear, the automated “ConnectEd” calls made from central offices displayed Dilworth Elementary as the originating number, so people who hit callback buttons got the beleaguered school staff.
Other than that, the exodus ran smoothly, CMS leaders say. Some parents were surprised when their students called earlier than the stated dismissal times to say classes had dismissed. CMS spokeswoman Tahira Stalberte said some schools began letting students out early as buses arrived.
At South Mecklenburg High, senior Jessica Coates said students going home by car got out at 11:40 a.m. to clear the way for buses. One driveway was closed because of ice, but otherwise it went well, she said.
At Northwest School of the Arts, a magnet that pulls students from around the county, junior Damara Garcia-Garcia said she and some other students stayed home because of the early dismissal. No one in her family could come get her early, she said, and some friends who have their own cars were kept home by parents who didn’t want young drivers on slick roads.
On Friday, no one could verify the last time CMS dismissed early, but several people said the last time they remember was around 2000.
Haden Choiniere remembers being a student at South Charlotte middle around that time, when a surprise snowfall swept in.
“I remember waiting for the buses to drop off the younger kids first,” she emailed. “It started snowing in the late morning and by afternoon there were several inches.”