Trying to help defend Mayor Bill de Blasio’s controversial decision to open public schools Thursday, Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña fueled skepticism with an odd weather report of her own.
Standing alongside the mayor during a late- morning snow briefing, she said: “And by the way, just coming down here, it has totally stopped snowing. It is absolutely a beautiful day out there right now.”
At that moment, a perhaps lighter, more rainy mix was falling on top of the 6 to 9 inches of snow already recorded at different locations across the five boroughs.
But Fariña’s gaffe aside, de Blasio and aides argued multiple points in response to a wide swath of critics, from teachers to parents to weather forecasters who said the schools should have closed.
At times during a grilling by news reporters, the mayor’s statements sounded as squishy and awkward as the feel of the ground underfoot. But in the end, he did offer substantive arguments.
“Based on our knowledge of what Sanitation could do overnight, we were convinced that kids could get to school this morning,” de Blasio said. “So many families depend on the schools as a place for their kids to be during the day — a safe place where they not only are taught but they get nutrition and they are safe from the elements. So many of these families have to go to work, they do not have a choice.”
Since 1978, city education officials canceled school days only 11 times. “It is a rarity and something we do not do lightly,” de Blasio added.
After stating repeatedly that safety was considered first, de Blasio seemed to finally get to an essential point: Calling off school “at the slightest hint of snow” would be illegal. “It’s our obligation to run a school system,” he said. “We have a state mandate to reach a certain number of school days a year. It’s a fair mandate.”
But hadn’t an emergency been declared statewide and citywide? He replied: “New Yorkers handle these challenges with a lot of fortitude and a lot of strength ... we don’t shut down in the face of adversity.”
As managerial tests go, this one was a lot bigger and more complex than insufficient plowing in one neighborhood or another. It was his first crisis decision, affecting the whole city, to provoke such widespread irritation — a true baptism by precipitation for a 5-week-old mayoralty.
Dan Janison is a Newsday columnist.