Snow may not have fallen on the USM campus last Tuesday, but students did.
The freezing rain people encountered up and down the coast of New England caused many early closings and cancellations including Portland City Hall, the Maine Mall, and over 115 area schools and colleges. Yet USM remained open most of the day.
“Healthy people were having a hard time getting around with the ice – what about disabled people?” said Justin LaBerge, Student Senate treasurer. “The institution itself was absolutely dangerous and nothing is important enough to jeopardize students’ safety. The Maine Mall was even closed – this should tell us something.”
The decision not to cancel classes early in the day on Tuesday has sparked outrage among USM community members. Many have questioned the University’s commitment to the large population of commuter students who travel as far as 60 miles to get to class.
Sam Andrews, the University’s chief financial officer, who helps decide when to cancel classes, acknowledged the commuter concern but felt that the conditions of the roads were acceptable.
“I drove to Gorham in the afternoon and the roads were kind of wet but okay. In Gorham the grounds workers were spreading sand and salt as quickly as possible on the walkways and stairs.”
Raymond Penfold, the general manager at VIP Tour and Charter buses, said the company contacted the school and expressed concerns about driving Tuesday. He even admitted having to send a charter bus on its way to Foxwoods casino back to Portland from Portsmouth because of the icy conditions.
“We’re trying to get them to stop,” said Penfold on Tuesday. “It’s icy and we have already made the suggestion to stop. We know the conditions on the road and sometimes we know we should stop and don’t, like now.”
Because the bus company is under contract with the University it has little control over the decision to cancel classes. The company must drive while school is open.
The State Police answered 70 accident reports in the southern Maine region on Tuesday on the Maine Turnpike up to Augusta and on I-95 to Brunswick. There was also a fatality reported at approximately 2 p.m.
Lt. Randall Nichols said that when accidents occurring on secondary roads are taken into account, numbers for Tuesday were well into the hundreds. This is in the southern Maine region alone.
On days like last Tuesday, President Richard Pattenaude makes the decision to close school after discussing conditions with Andrews and Dave Early, director of Facilities Management. The three confer with the National Weather Service, meteorologist Ross Murley, and the police dispatchers early in the morning to discuss conditions on both the Gorham and Portland campuses. This process is gone through at 5 a.m. and, if conditions persist, throughout the day.
Last week however, Pattenaude was out of town, leaving the decision up to Provost Joe Wood and Andrews.
“We talk to weather forecasters and folks on campus to find out the conditions there. Then I talk to the president about it at 5 a.m. and he makes the decision,” said Andrews. “On Tuesday, Bob Goettel [executive assistant to the president] and Joe Wood maintained contact with the Weather Channel all afternoon and at that time the weather was suppose to change to rain and warm up.”
Many people throughout the USM community voiced their concerns Tuesday about the decision to keep school open. With the University’s large commuter population and non-traditional students, factors beside the inclement weather were among their concerns. Heather Jackson Dilios, assistant to the dean of the Law School, feels it is important to take other area closings into account when deciding whether or not to close the University. She posted a list of closings on the USM Listserv Tuesday afternoon for those who may have children in school.
“I did it out of concern for faculty and students who may not have been aware of what was cancelled. It is difficult for them when their kids get out early, and if their kids do get out early, I have to go interrupt class so a professor can go get her child,” said Dilios.
“I also did it to make a point that the decision to stay open was poor and someone could get seriously hurt and end up suing and also because a majority of the students here commute,” she said.
Ana Mercado, an administrative assistant in the College of Nursing and Health, suffers from severe back problems and has handicap plates. She said the conditions of the walkways and stairs were very dangerous on the Portland campus when she arrived at 7:30 a.m.
“It was very awful trying to walk to the building,” said Dilios. “The parking lot, sidewalks, and stairs were very dangerous and I couldn’t even hold on to the railings because they were all iced over too. Everyone on campus was literally slipping and sliding.”
Goettel also had input in Tuesday’s decision. He said the icy condition of the campus was ultimately the reason they decided to cancel classes after 5 p.m.
“It is fair to say that the sidewalks were messier than the roads,” said Goettel. “One reason we decided to close was out of concern that the rain coming down on campus was going to get worse. But it looked as though people were getting around pretty well all day.”
Tuesday was not the first time this year members of the USM community have expressed concern about having to go to campus in bad weather.
Kevin Granahan, a software support specialist for the University, would like some answers as to why the University, in his opinion, has stayed open four times this winter when every other public institution has closed.
“This has been consistent in every bout of bad weather we have had,” he said. “Everyone shuts down but us. I chose to post my concerns on the USM Listserv along with many others because I want to know the reasons for the decision making and also because all day on campus I heard students talking about it. If the discussion on campus is that Rich, maybe whoever makes the decision should bring it to a public forum because they are endangering people for no good reason.”