MILLBURN, NJ - An attempt by Millburn Board of Education Property Committee Chairman John Westfall-Kwong to institute closing of township schools for the Indian Diwali holiday and the Chinese Lunar New Year for the 2014-2015 school year was tabled by the township school board on Monday, with the possibility action will be taken on the matter by the end of this month after the board’s attorney provides guidance on how the school body should proceed.
Board member Rupali Wadhwa made the proposal for a Diwali school closing last fall during a discussion on the proposed 2014-2015 school calendar and supporters of the proposal have been at almost every school body meeting since the proposal first was made.
Meanwhile, members of the township’s Chinese-American community have been pressing for recognition for the Lunar New Year since around March of this year. They have suggested that, rather than adding to the number of days when schools close, the education body can use days currently allocated to in-school teacher training for the Lunar New Year holiday.
In Monday’s resolution, Westfall-Kwong called for the school district to recognize the diversity of Millburn’s population with the holidays celebrating the the township’s inclusiveness.
His resolution was seconded by board member Raymond Wong and supported by Wadhwa.
However, board member Eric Siegel, who sits on the program committee under whose jurisdiction the holiday proposal would fall, said it was premature to take any action on the holidays in light of the fact that the board’s attorney had asked to review board policies relating to the proposals just last Friday and was expected to make a recommendation to the school body shortly.
Board member Emily Jaffe added that the board needed instruction on how to proceed because it should develop a uniform policy. Until that was done, she said, she could not vote on making the two holidays days free from school for the next school year.
Westfall-Kwong, while respectful of the hard work of the program committee in dealing with the holiday issue, said he saw nothing in the board attorney’s instructions about an overall policy that would preclude celebration of specific holidays.
Wadhwa said the board had decided in the past to take actions despite being advised not to do so by its attorney.
She added that the issue was about respecting the diversity in Millburn and preparing township students for working in a global economy by learning about other cultures.
Wadhwa also added the proposal was not to exclude any religion’s holidays from the school calendar but to expand the school system’s inclusiveness.
Program committee chairwoman Regina Truitt, noting that her committee had been working hard to address all points of view while coming to a solution, said if no solid policy was established the board would not be able to deny any group that wanted schools closed for its policy in the future.
Siegal added that the Westfall-Kwong proposal would put the board members in the “distasteful” position of being forced to vote for or against religion.
He also said board members were being asked to vote for or against the proposal after being threated with possible litigation over the matter.
Board member Michael King also urged his colleagues to proceed with caution because their attorney still had not advised them whether New Jersey statute allowed them to approve of the inclusion of the holidays.
Also, Board President Jeffrey Waters noted he had predicted that, if one group requested a school closing for its holiday another would soon follow and he had heard in the community that there was a feeling that it would be “first come, first served” in getting a holiday granted.
In previous board meetings it also has been pointed out that Jewish holidays were incorporated into the township school calendar about 20 years ago because the overwhelming Jewish population in the schools made it practically impossible to conduct schools on those holidays because so many students and teachers would not attend.
Truitt added that it was very likely the board would take a formal vote on the holiday matter at its next meeting, on June 23, but that she would advocate for an additional board meeting prior to that vote so that the school body could receive total public input on the matter.
On another matter of recent controversy, board member and Millburn High School senior Chase Harrison said proposed board changes in homework policy did not go far enough in limiting the amount of homework that could be given, how many hours per night should be devoted to homework and the effect of homework in adding to student stress.
Wong, who chairs the policy committee, replied the committee had reviewed Harrison’s proposed changes in the policy, including a Stanford University study cited by Harrison.
After reviewing the study and policies such as those in Ridgewood, cited by Harrison, and interviewing school staff members, the policy committee chairman said the committee came to the conclusion that revised policy was appropriate.
Revisions in the policy call for teachers to attempt to avoid giving onerous amounts of homework just prior to school breaks and scheduling tests immediately following breaks.
While teacher Lois Enfanger, the president of the Millburn Education Association, disputed some of Harrison’s remarks and said instructors should have more input into decisions on homework policy, parent Lisa Lieberman, who has two daughters in Millburn High School, said her daughters often miss out on some family vacation time so they can complete homework assignments that end in the early morning hours.
Also at Monday’s meeting, the school board honored a number of teachers and other staff members who are retiring this year from the Millburn school district and Michael Birnberg, Lise Chapman and Rona Wenik, who left the school board this year.
John Rogers of the Millburn Retired Educators Association welcomed the departing staffers to the group’s alumni ranks and invited them to a luncheon to be held by the group on Oct. 22 at Mayfair Farms in West Orange.