BERNARDS TWP., NJ - It's been a potential school holiday discussed by a long succession of Board of Education members as well as by the public, tentatively placed on school calendars, and then definitely for the 2012-13 calendar - but then, Hurricane Sandy closed weeks for two weeks in 2012, and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday was one of the scheduled days off that were cut that year to make up for lost time.

But now a majority of board members, along with members of the public who spoke at Monday night's meeting, said they think it's time to place the federal holiday honoring the slain civil rights leader on next year's school calendar.

A survey of about 30 school districts in the region - including the neighboring Somerset Hills school district and the Bedminster Public School - showed that Bernards Township was alone this year in holding school on the nationwide holiday to honor King, said Board Member Linda Wooldridge.

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Board Member Rhonda Dunten added that parents in the township may have the day off from work on the federal holiday, and are unable to spend the day with children who must attend school.

Some members of the public told the board that the time has definitely come for the district to recognize King's contributions for civil rights for all Americans.

Deadline for deciding by March 1

School officials said the deadline for changing the following September's school calendar is March 1 of the current school year.

That leaves the Board of Education one more meeting, scheduled for Feb. 27, when a final vote can be taken on whether to add the holiday.

At this past Monday's meeting, board members discussed the proposal, and then cast a 6-3 vote to direct the school administration to consider how best to accommodate the addition of the holiday to the 2017-18 school calendar.

Schools Superintendent Nick Markarian said the most likely options are either to add an extra day to the school year, moving graduation for 2018 to June 20, instead of June 19, or to have students report a day earlier to school in September 2017.

However, Markarian noted that altering the first day of school this September would require discussions with the Bernards Township Education Association, the district's teachers union. The first day of school now on next year's school calendar is Thursday, Sept. 7, preceded by two days of in-service preparation by staff members.

The superintendent said he must first check whether staff members would be willing to change long precedent, and report to school on the Friday prior to Labor Day weekend.

King's legacy discussed each year in schools

Time was, a few districts in the area also had school on that day. The practice was to schedule activities on the holiday to teach students at different levels about King's work and the civil rights struggles from that era. With varying degrees of consistency, the curriculum in Bernards schools has followed that model.

Most notably, it has been a tradition for eighth graders at the William Annin Middle School to hold an assembly about the civil rights movement, in history and in today's world.

Some board members, including Michael Byrne, said students would learn more about King in school than they would rather than by taking the day off.

One speaker from the audience, Jen Korn, said she agrees the time has come to add King's birthday celebration to the school calendar. However, she noted that her own children had learned much in school about civil rights and King over the years.

But some of the proponents of adding the holiday to the school calendar noted that teaching could take place on days other than the actual holiday. The holiday, held the third Monday of each January, was signed into law by U.S. President Ronald Reagan in 1983.

Students already have the option of staying home if they feel that is the best way to recognize the holiday. However, one township father told the school board that doing so has caused his elementary school son to face questions from other students, such as whether he had taken the day off in protest. 

Reggie Robinson, who said he recently moved into township in recent years, said he had grown up in a small town in Tennessee, about two hours away from where Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. He said the holiday honoring King could be used to celebrate the diversity of all Americans.

Robinson added, "There's so many difficult discussions we have to with our kids. A conversation about a national holiday we have off to [recognize King] and his legacy shouldn't have to be one of them."

Board Member Karen Gray said she recognizes the importance of the holiday, but she feels it is arbitrary to put the extra holiday on at this time without looking at the calendar as a whole. The Board of Education approves school calendars three years in advance, subject to revision.

Byrne said he would like for parents to be surveyed on whether they would support the addition of the holiday to the school calendar. But other board members noted there would not be time prior to the Feb. 27 meeting, scheduled to be held at 7 p.m. at Ridge High School.

The school district had extensively surveyed parents and staff about the school calendar in 2013 when the community had protested that the last day of school extended until almost the end of June.

As a result, the traditional February week off was cut to a two-day holiday to include Presidents Day. Since then, the board has refrained from adding other requested holidays for the school calendar, including a day off for Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights.

Indeed, on Monday night, another parent asked why school couldn't be started earlier in order to allow students more time to prepare for Advanced Placement Tests administered nationwide each spring.

Board Member John Fry said he recollected that parents who had been surveyed in 2013 indicated that if there were to be a holiday added to the school holiday, they would prefer it to be King's birthday holiday.

Board President Bev Cwerner, who said she had been involved in accumulating survey results, said that no calendar will please all school families. However, she said that adding the King holiday to the school calendar, which she favors, "is a personal issue for me."