Regional School Committee Votes Down Superintendent’s Proposed Calendar
Religious holidays preserved as Acton Public Schools officials deadlocked on the Issue.
Last week's regional school committee meeting drew a larger-than-usual number of observers. Most were Acton parents in attendance in order to voice their opinions regarding the ongoing calendar debate. Up for discussion, and then voting by school committee members, were four possible calendars. Variables included start dates before and after Labor Day, religious holidays as days off, and religious holidays as school days.
Superintendent Steve Mills proposed a calendar that would have students return to school on Aug. 27, 2013 and attend classes on Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Good Friday. Although pre-Labor Day starts have occurred the last several years, the religious holidays have been days off from school for approximately twenty years.
Citing reasons that included teachers “having to get through voluminous amounts of material” before standardized testing takes place, the vast majority of surrounding communities holding school on religious holidays and the fact that observant students would be offered accommodations, Mills asked that the school committee vote for “Calendar A.”
Referencing the fact that last year’s vote, 7-6 in favor of closing school for the aforementioned religious holidays, was close and he is “generally quite good” at knowing how his school committee will view issues, Mills appeared confident as he turned the microphone over to school committee members.
Michael Coppolino quickly identified himself as one who intended to vote for the status quo. After explaining that he had reviewed “numerous passionate letters, based on conviction” emailed to the school committee about the subject, he discounted “the correspondence based on convenience.”
Referring to the fact that school has, historically, not been held on religious holidays, Coppolino questioned the need for change.
“Generally, change is motivated by problems or issues, and implemented to improve the current situation,” he said. “Is the quality of education we will provide on those three days improved by ignoring the convictions of a substantial number of both staff and students who will not attend school?”
After hearing from school committee members who concurred and those who were opposed, spectators who had signed in and requested to speak lined up to do so.
All those who addressed the school committee were in favor of preserving the religious holidays.
“I’ve been so appreciative and proud,” Lloyd Simon said of the local community’s history of granting religious holidays. “Acton has really stood apart. We don’t have to choose between religion and school.”
Ronit Benshir said that she moved to Acton “because there is a strong Jewish community here.”
Honi Kawut described the solemn traditions of Yom Kippur: fasting for more than 24 hours, attending services and refraining from working and studying.
“Yom Kippur is our holiest day,” she said. “This is not a ‘day off.’”
Tom Griffin questioned the need for change, calling the current school performance “stellar.”
Other speakers echoed these sentiments and dispelled the notion that school can operate normally with 60+ substitutes teaching and 7-10 percent of students missing.
Pamela Harting-Barrat shared her first-hand experience. As a parent who kept her now-grown children home despite classes—and sports team tryouts—being held on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Harting-Barrat described what it was like for her kids to be “the only Jewish kids in school.”
As a member of the school committee that voted to close school on religious holidays for the first time, Harting-Barrat said, “It was a tough vote, but we did the right thing.”
At the conclusion of the testimony, school committee members voted down Calendar A. Calendar B, which specifies a start date of August 27, 2013, and the closing of school for the religious holidays, was narrowly approved by regional members, 8-7. Acton Public Schools members’ votes tallied 3-3, which means that the elementary schools do not have an approved calendar at this time.
After the meeting, regional school committee chairperson Xuan Kong said, "All members of the two school committees appreciated very much the public participation both at the meeting and through prior email communication. The school committees and the administration are committed to making our students’ learning experience both academically challenging and culturally and socially sensitive.”
The issue will be taken up again at the Acton Public Schools committee meeting scheduled for Dec. 20, at 7:00 p.m., in the junior high school library.
“It is expected that the committee will make a decision at that time,” said Kong.