News at Mason
Snow day in Fairfax County? Mason public administration alumnus Jeff Platenberg makes the call
January 29, 2018 / by Buzz McClain
Some days Jeffrey Platenberg is a hero to hundreds of thousands of children. Those are the days he makes the call to delay the start or close Fairfax County’s schools for inclement weather.
Parents sometimes complain that the “little dusting” of snow that fell overnight shouldn’t cause such a drastic, disruptive measure, but Platenberg, an assistant superintendent for facilities and transportation services of the country’s 10th largest school system, said there are other factors at stake besides parental inconvenience.
“I will always err on the side of caution, always,” he said. “It’s the safety of the students, that’s the first priority.”
Platenberg graduated from George Mason University in 1985 with a bachelor of science degree in public administration. His comprehensive studies in public administration, political analysis and economics not only prepared him in how to deal with major public policy issues but also gave him the confidence to tackle them head-on—and face the response, whatever it may be.
“It’s just amazing how much that broad background made me really prepared to draw on not just theory and concepts but actual case studies,” he said.
“Even the public speaking course—all those things were inextricably linked to building the capacity and the confidence level in myself that I would be able to contribute to a public organization.”
Platenberg worked for the Federal Aviation Administration’s budget office before becoming a budget analyst with the Fairfax school system.
“Even then, my Mason experience let me know that I could do this,” he said.
Since 2013 he’s been a key administrator for the 189,000-student school system, overseeing about 3,170 support staff with an operating budget of about $220 million, a construction budget of about $1.10 billion and a fleet of 1,643 buses and 300 vehicles.
When he’s not watching the weather, Platenberg coordinates support for the school system’s principals and regional superintendents on how to deal with the myriad issues that occur daily in such a large organization. For example, when a school's power goes out, as it did recently, it’s Platenberg’s team that contacts the power company, arranges temporary electricity, discusses closure and transportation options, notifies the parents and works with the cafeteria to ensure students will be fed.
The decision to close the schools in nasty weather is his, but he doesn’t do it alone. A 3 a.m. call includes government officials who pore over National Weather Service briefs. School staff members travel the county, observing the pathways that kids and their buses take to get to school. If the factors are unfavorable, Platenberg closes the schools[MB1] [BM2] .
January’s call to close schools in brutally cold temperatures frustrated many parents because there was no visible snow or ice.
“Keep in mind we had some of the coldest weather conditions back to back to back and then wind chill advisory,” he said. “I’ve got approximately 43,000 students who walk to school and another 137,000 that have to walk to their bus stop. At the elementary level, kids can walk up to a mile to school, a mile-and-a-half for secondary.
“Some students walk more than 20 minutes and you’re not even supposed to be outside for more than 30 minutes during certain periods because of possible hypothermia and frostbite.”
In extremely cold weather, some diesel buses won’t start, another factor for delays or closings.
“And remember what a great driver you thought you were in high school?” he joked. “You weren’t, and neither was I. So I’ve got high school drivers to worry about, too.”
In addition to his day job, in his spare time Platenberg is a licensed general contractor.
“A lifelong learner,” he said. “I learned that at Mason, too.”