BERNARDS TWP., NJ - The Bernards Board of Education decided by a majority vote to add the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday to the next three school calendars, beginning in January 2018.
The board also voted on Monday night to add the federal holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader to the following two school calendars, for the school years 2018-19, and 2019-20.
The board faced a deadline of March 1 to make a decision on whether to revise the school calendar for the upcoming school year. School calendars are approved three years ahead, subject to revision.
The proposal to add the holiday to next year's school calendar was first discussed publicly at the previous school board meeting on Feb. 13.
Board Member Karen Gray abstained from voting for the holiday to be added to next year's school calendar. She said she was not comfortable with the process of adding an extra holiday without obtaining more input from the public, and a more formal survey of teachers. She noted that about half of teachers had been surveyed since the Feb. 13 meeting, and about 75 percent of those were in favoring of having King's birthday holiday as a day off from school.
Board members were accused by some parents of ignoring the results of an extensive survey in 2013 questioning what school holidays should be removed from the school calendar in order to end the school year earlier in June. However some board members said that in a survey three years ago, members of the public indicated that if the calendar were to include one more school holiday, it would be the Martin Luther King's birthday in January.
"I feel we are following the spirit of what the community wanted," said Board Member Rhonda Dunten.
One mother who was among the public speakers said that King's message of nonviolence and inclusiveness is "what I want to teach my children."
Need to confirm that 'Project Graduation' can be moved to a day later in 2018
As a result of adding the holiday, Schools Superintendent Nick Markarian said that the Class of 2018 will graduate on June 20, 2018, rather than the originally scheduled date June 19.
Although he said the school district received an email confirming that the venue for Project Graduation can be changed by a day, he said he wants to see the contract officially confirmed before the date - and the change in the school calendar - becomes official. He said he expects that will happen this week.
Viewing the crowd, Board President Beverly Cwerner said, "This is clearly an issue that members of the community have thought about."
Cwerner disputed what she said is the public perception that she put the issue on the board's agenda two weeks earlier. "The board had received quite a few letters on this subject," she said.
The idea of adding the holiday to the school calendar was first discussed by the board's policy committee, she said. The policy committee recommended adding the holiday prior to the March 1 deadline for changing the next year's calendar.
"I understand this is not an easy task," said one mother, but she said that recognizing the holiday will give the community an opportunity to make its values clear. "We are inclusive in our families, schools, and community - this is large part due to the accomplishment of Dr. Martin Luther King."
The first speaker from the public was Carolyn Gaziano, both a mother of a high school student and the mayor. Gaziano objected to a portrayal of the community - and her specifically - as bigoted and discriminatory at the Feb. 13 school board meeting. "Our town is ethnically diverse, with 48 different languages spoken." She said she had met and befriended parents from all backgrounds while volunteering in the school system for 20 years.
Board Member Mike Byrne voted for adding the holiday for 2017-18, although noted he felt the issue had become "politics." However, he voted against adding the calendar to the two following school years at this time, because he said he believes the board should survey the school community before this Sept. 1 to hear their opinion.
"I personally support adding Martin Luther King [holiday] on the calendar," said parent Sherry Nelson. However, Nelson told the board that, "It appears that you are not interested in the public feedback on this."
Nelson said she would favor another survey before a decision is made to add another holiday. "Another important holiday overlooked is Veterans Day," she noted.
"All federal holidays are equally important," said another parent, Stella Perna. She expressed displeasure with "the process" for adding the January holiday, particularly after the survey in 2013.
One of the speakers, Rick Winegar, said he moved to the community six and a half years ago with his bi-racial family. He said he was surprised to discover when he first arrived that his daughters did not have King's holiday off from school. He said that he has a holiday on Wall Street that day.
Following the meeting, Winegar said he was pleased with the board's vote. "This is a great community, and this says a lot for us to take this action."