Millburn Board of Education Votes 6-3 for Revised Holiday Closing Process

Residents of Millburn-Short Hills listen to Monday's school board discussion on revisions to the school holiday policy. Credits: Bob Faszczewski

MILLBURN, NJ—A three-step process for dealing with resident demands for observance of cultural and religious events was adopted Monday by a 6-3 vote of the Millburn Board of Education.

The board program committee has been wrestling with the holiday concept since members of the township’s Indian community last fall petitioned for inclusion of the Hindu Feast of Lights, Diwali, as a holiday  on the school calendar, and, more recently, the Chinese-American community requested observance of the Lunar New Year as a holiday.

Monday’s proposal recognized both the need to foster awareness of cultural diversity in the township schools and that the process to close the schools should be related to reasons “related to any issue that significantly impacts the functioning of the school district, including significant absenteeism.”

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The three-pronged approach calls for:

First, submission to the board of a petition signed by 500 adult district residents of voting age requesting closing of school on a specific day due to significant absenteeism.

Second, after validation of signatures on the petition preparation by the school administration of an online ballot available to school district families during the 2014-2015 school year to gather data for the 2015-2016 school year. Each family will have one vote for each of their children registered as a student in the distric. If the results of the ballot indicate that the percentage of anticipated absences during a school day is expected to exceed 15 percent of the student population, the board would determine whether there is a need to close schools on that day.

Third, if school is not closed for a religious holiday, parents still would be able to submit a written request to excuse their child from school if they seek an excused absence for a state-approved religious holiday.

The procedure emphasizes, however, that the board of education has the ultimate responsibility for constructing a school calendar. It also states that, based on ballot results, the education body would construct a three-year calendar using the information gathered from the voting process outlined above.

Board program chairwoman Regina Truitt said the holiday decision was one of the toughest she had to make since joining the board. She said that, after many months of deliberation, the committee had come to the conclusion that significant absenteeism was the only valid reason for closing the schools.

Truitt added that the 15 percent threshold was decided upon after consulting with teachers, students and members of the administration. Also, it was decided that all non-federal holidays, included the Jewish holidays on which township schools currently are closed, would be subject to the petition and balloting process.

She also said the committee felt the petition and balloting process “provided a clear path to solution” of the holiday dilemma.

Although praising the committee for its work, board member John Westfall-Kwong, who voted against the holiday revision, said he had a different opinion of fairness than that of Truitt or the committee members who favored the revision.

He said the proposal “set the bar too high,” and did not give enough voice to those who wanted to support holidays observed by their friends and neighbors as well as their own. He also said it was the responsibility of the board to set the acceptable absenteeism rate it felt appropriate without subjecting the community to the second—ballot—process—thus making the holiday closing decison process too complicated.

Committee member Michael King replied the committee wanted to be responsive to community wishes while, at the same rime, serving the students.

He also said the committee wanted to provide a policy that would lay out a roadmap for future boards in dealing with holiday issues.

Board member Raymond Wong, who joined with Westfall-Kwong and board member Rupali Wadhwa in voting against the revision, said he was glad that the proposal included in its introduction that Millburn’s cultural diversity was one of the things which all township residents share and “what makes us great.”

Wadhwa said, however, that the revision apparently was decided based on the personal observances of committee members rather than community input.

She added that, on November 13, when Diwali wss first proposed as a holiday, some board members needed to be informed of the significance of the holiday and, she felt, there had been an “insular attitude” on the school body.

The board member felt it was unfair that the 250 Hindu families who originally signed a petition supporting Diwali as a school holiday were being told to “start the process all over again.”

She also said it was never the intention of those supporting Diwali to revoke the already-existing school holidays and called this unfair to those observing these holidays.

Wadhwa, in addition, asked why, if the committee was concerned about “fairness” it could delay “fairness” until 2015-2016 rather than instituting the change in the 2014-2015 school year.

She also asked why 15 percent absenteeism was chosen as the milestone for determining school closings for holidays when township schools, especially in the later part of the school year, operated with 25 to 40 percent absenteeism. She wanted to know why the figure could not be as high as 50 percent.

Board president Jeffrey Waters said the holiday closing decision was among the most challenging he had to make during his two terms on the board. He also confirmed this would be his final board term.

He added that, although he understood the heartfelt sentiments of those concerned with their children losing touch with their culture and those of their neighbors, the decision on when to close schools had to be a secular one—based on the fact that too many deliverers of school services (teachers) or receivers of school services (students) would be absent on a given day.

Waters also said the proposed change also committed the district, which already had a number of cultural awareness programs, to explore increasing those programs.

Replying to some of Whadwa’s points, he said what was originally before the board was an amendment of what had been done in the past. 

He added that the board wanted to assure that what was on the proposed ballot was viable in terms of what was considered. It ultimately was, however, the board’s decision.

Waters also said the school body needed to gather data on the issue and process it. Therefore, a 2014 date for the change was unrealistic.

In the end, the board president said, the township is one community and residents, when becoming involved in the process, should think about how they want to “model” it for their children and avoid forming a “fissure” in the community.

Waters also said a decision on the revised process was partially driven by threats of litigation if the board did not recognize additional holidays.

Board member Eric Siegel added that a new process to obtain an absentee threshold was needed because the board’s only current reference for absenteeism thresholds was one set about 20 years ago when excessive student and staff absenteeism led to the decision to close on Jewish holidays. The community, he said, deserved a chance to establish current data on the issue.

Later, during the public discussion, Waters also confirmed that there was nothing in the procedure to deter neighbors from voting in favor of holidays favored by friends or neighbors whose religious or cultural traditions were different from theirs.

During the public discussion, Jack Ouyong, president of the Millburn-Short Hills Chinese Association,  said the proposed change was dividing the community by pitting one holiday against another. 

He also said the board had violated its own policies by not holding a public hearing on the proposal and presenting it to the public only one business day prior to the meeting on which a vote was to be taken on it.

Ouyong also repeated that those who supported the Lunar New Year and Diwali as school holidays had suggested deleting current staff development days or winter or spring vacation days to make up for the proposed closings rather than adding days to the school calendar or removing existing holidays.

Resident Corey Biller said the question was not whether or not to grant another day off but to enable families to observe according to their beliefs.

To ask the community to revisit the question again in three years “was like asking us to once again rip a bandaid off,” Biller added.

Former board member Abby Kalen said she agreed with Westfall-Kwong’s comments. She added that the emphasis on multi-cultural education in the schools in the last few years did more to divide the community than to unite it and the board should take the opportunity in formulating a holiday policy to say that Millburn was an inclusive community.

Resident Cara Halpern, who has a second grader in township schools, said holidays were apparently being removed without discussion and teacher absenteeism was not being taken into consideration.

When the question of teacher participation under the new procedure was again raised by Lois Infanger, president of the Millburn Education Association, Waters replied there was provision for teacher participation and the question would be addressed in revised questions and answers about the procedure that would be posted on the district website.

Resident Stuart Balsan said school days should not be added or subtracted. He said existing holidays should be “grandfathered into” the new procedure, the board should place on the proposed ballot the absentee number it thought acceptable and the community only should have to sign petitions in favor of holidays in the future.

On another continuing issue, Westfall-Kwong, during his property committee report, said all 46 parents or guardians contacted by the district regarding their residency status following the board’s use of Verify Residency software to examine addresses supplied by parents of students attending Millburn schools had provided “all required items confirming their residency.”

He added the district is following up with seven families who had not filled out forms during the sixth and ninth grade re-registration process.

He added, “The Committee takes residency issues very seriously and would like to refer those unaware of various actions taken to ensure residency of students to the most recent (6/9) Q&A page (as well as 3/17 and 4/28) on which reiterates steps taken and reported at a number of board meetings over the past five months. Numerous district staff members spend substantial amounts of time following up on all reports of non-residency – and proactively verifying residency of all incoming preschool, kindergarten, sixth, ninth grade and new students.  In addition, the Committee has worked directly with the Policy Committee to implement a tougher policy than previous years regarding steps to be taken immediately, if a parent or guardian is found to be a nonresident.”  

In addition, the property committee chairman said that the district will be going to bid for online registration software that will include the ability for parents and guardians to provide documents online and eventually implement annual re-registration for all grades with the goal of testing kindergarten registration in 2015.  

New software, according to Westfall-Kwong, will provide the ability to automatically remind staff about garnering time sensitive documents.  It will also serve as a secure gateway integrated with the district’s PowerSchool database.  The registration team will start interviews with vendors in mid-July, he said.

Resident Milton Resnick, an accountant, said he still could not see how the board had gone from 25 to 40 percent nonresidents apparently uncovered by the Verify Residency report to seven.

In the report, which examined the addresses of the 4,974 Millburn district students, in one database examined, 1,234 addresses supplied by student parents or guardians either showed up with no match of the address provided with the current address on file with the data provider or had no record found for the name associated with the address provided by the district, while 1,904 showed up in those categories in another database examined by the Verify Residence software.

Resnick estimated that non-resident students would cause “14 million to come out of our pockets.”

He said all residents would like to see their property taxes reduced if the nonresident students were not in the district.

Former board member Josh Scharf, referring to board member statements that they had to “put their fiduciary hats on” in avoiding possible lawsuits by devising a policy on holiday closing, said they should do the same regarding the residency issue.

He said currently, in the surrounding area and statewide the average school population is about 20 percent of the overall population, whereas Millburn’s is 25 percent of the overall population.

In 1970, Scharf added, with 21,900 residents, Millburn had 4,261 public school students or about 20 percent of the population.

He said nonresident students were “crowding out” Millburn residents in township classrooms and competing with township resident students for college admissions. In addition, he added, non-resident students were suffering by “living a lie” by attending Millburn schools.

He said superintendent of schools James Crisfield is aided by having more non-resident students because this helps increase his budget.

Scharf also said no one on the school board has yet to say the Verify Residency report was incorrect.

Kalen also asked that the board place on the website the names of any school body members who had worked on eliminating families from the Verify Residence report.

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