Non-Resident Students and Religious Holidays Discussed at Millburn Board of Education Meeting

Millburn-Short Hills Chinese Association President Jack Ouyang calls for school observance of the Chinese Lunar New Year. Credits: Bob Faszczewski

MILLBURN, NJ - At the Board of Education Meeting on Monday evening, an update on the issue of non-resident children possibly attending Millburn schools was given.  Board member and Negotiations Committee chair John Westfall-Kwong said the commitee received an update that 27 out of 46 parents or guardians have responded to the district’s letter regarding documentation of residency. He added that staff members will call and email (when email addresses are available), the 19 non-respondents.

He added that only 46 out of 52 guardians whose information could not be verified by the Verify Residency search done several weeks ago were contacted because six of the addresses were from pre-school parents or guardians whose residence had been “confirmed with all valid documents during the registration process within the school year.”

Westfall-Kwong also said that the committee asked the board policy committee to examine a tuition reimbursement collection policy for any students determined to be nonresidents. In addition, he said, school security officer Michael Palardy gave the committee further information about procedures in place for residency investigations and other safety and security issues.

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At Monday’s meeting, former board members Josh Scharf and Lise Chapman continued to press the board for a more detailed explanation about how the board reduced Verify Residency figures that produced about 1200 questionable address information from one data base and 1900 from another database down to the 52 parents or guardians whose information was followed up on.

An explanation of the board’s methodology was provided on the district website following the board’s March 13 session.

Another topic of continuing controversy—school holidays for religious and cultural observances—also dominated Monday’s session.

The board’s program committee has been studying the topic since last October, when members of the township’s Indian community requested that the Indian festival of Diwali be added as a day when schools would be closed.

At Monday’s meeting, Millburn Short Hills Chinese Association president Jack Ouyang said a survey taken by his group showed that 96.6 percent of those who responded were in favor of the inclusion of a Chinese Lunar New Year observance in township schools.

He said the holiday, during which Chinese, Koreans and other Asians join with family to celebrate and learn about their culture and exchange red envelopes to be exchanged and ward off evil, was recognized in China and by many school districts in the state. He added that closing schools to observe the holiday would also give students a better appreciation of cultural diversity in Millburn-Short Hills.

Instead of disrupting the school calendar, the Chinese association president suggested that a staff development day be used for the holiday or the district’s winter or spring vacations be changed to include the holiday.

Several other speakers addressed the board in favor of the observance.

A frequent supporter of the Diwali observance, Jhoti Sharma, said those supporting a Diwali observance, who had first petitioned the board last fall, did not want to exclude any other religion—they just wanted to add a holiday since the school district already closes for Rosh Hosannah and Yom Kippur—Jewish holidays.

She also suggested that the district’s winter or spring breaks could be modified to accommodate the additional holiday.

Sharma added, however, that, by allowing closings for one culture’s holiday or another would give township students the idea that there was a “pecking order” of religions in the township.

Several speakers opposed a recent suggestion by board members that the school body may consider eliminating all closings for religious or cultural observances. Board members also have suggested allowing students to take days off without penalty to allow for religious or cultural observances.

Matthew D. Gewirtz, senior rabbi at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, said he was concerned that some residents felt there was a “pecking order” of religions in the community.

Gewirtz said it was a base value that all were held the same, adding that a rush to judgment deleting anyone’s observance would be leading Millburn-Short Hills “down a very bad road.”

He said the township’s clergy and board members should meet to come up with a solution that was beneficial to all.

Gewirtz concluded, “the more we see others as others, the more we diminish ourselves.”

Also speaking in favor of cultural diversity and against deletion of currently-observed holidays were Rabbi Mendel Bogomilsky of Millburn and Rabbi Faith Joy Dantowitz, a township resident who is a rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham in Livingston. 

Monday’s meeting also included a presentation by Nancy Siegel of the high school guidance department.

During the public comments portion of the meeting, however, resident MIchael Brendzel said the school’s guidance department tended to favor some students over others and to steer certain well-connected students to schools like Harvard and Yale.

Brendzel also said his son had been the victim of bullying at the middle school and officials, including principal Michael Cahill had done little to help. He pledged to “do all in his power”  to have Cahill removed as principal.

When Brendzel continued to attack school officials and the district, board president Jeffrey Waters told him personal attacks were inapppropriate at board meetings and urged him to stop.

After Brendzel said he would continue and said Waters could “call the police” to have him removed from the meeting, the board voted for a five-minite recess during which Brendzel left the room. Millburn police were seen outside the school after the meeting.

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