MILLBURN, NJ -- The Millburn Board of Education on Monday voted 8 - 1 to approve the draft calendar for the year 2018-19. The calendar includes two additional days off for professional development that coincide with the holidays of Diwali and the Lunar New Year and a shortened mid-winter break in February.
The board also approved the calendars for the subsequent two years, though that vote is non-binding, as rules require that the board approve calendars annually.
The vote on the calendars follows a resolution that the board passed at its last meeting on October 9 to find ways to include the holidays of Diwali and Lunar New Year on the calendar in addition to existing holidays for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Good Friday. The move was celebrated as an acknowledgment of the growing diversity in Millburn district.
The debate on drafting a more inclusive calendar, however, is a source of contention and divisiveness within the community and by the 1:00 am end of Monday's meeting, it was clear that few in town happy with the outcome.
In a bid to be secular, the board decided to do away with the practice of naming holidays on the calendar. Instead the calendars will now merely state that school is closed and will include an attachment of the NJ Statute that lists all holidays when students are permitted to take excused absences.
Further, the board decided to align professional development days with the holidays of Diwali and Lunar New Year. This appears to stem from reasoning by some members of the board that “anticipated absenteeism”, which is cited as a reason to close schools on Good Friday and the Jewish holidays, could not be used as a reason to close the school on Diwali and Lunar New Year, despite the significant growth in the Asian and Indian population.
Board member Rick Gray noted that the distinction was that made because Asian and Indian communities have traditionally not opted to take the days off even though they had the choice to do so. While he acknowledged that it was unfair to force someone to choose between their holiday and school when it is not in their tradition to do so, he said it made it tough to make a case for absenteeism as a secular reason for the holiday. “It is not who wants to take the holiday, but who will take the holiday off,” said Gray. “From my perspective, having a school closed for anticipated absences is not superior than schools closing for professional development. These are closing days. One is not more important than the other.”
Hindu community members present at the meeting, however, said they felt shortchanged because their holiday was granted under the guise of a professional development day and felt that all religious holidays need to be treated the same way. “Holidays disguised as professional development days ends up doing the exact same thing that we are trying to prevent,” said Praveen Kandula, whose kids attend Hartshorn Elementary. “It sets up potential for sub-conscious behavior as kids grow up, giving them the impression that some holidays are more important than others. When you give a holiday for holiday purpose, just name it for what it is.”
Board president Emily Jaffe said the additional professional development days were created after District Superintendent Christine Burton said she was looking for opportunities for more professional development. Data collected from three years ago showed a very small percent of teachers observe the holidays in question.
But parents questioned the fairness of holding professional development day on religious holidays. “I don’t think it is fair to force teachers to celebrate other holidays and use personal days to observe their own holidays,” said Corey Haas. “We wouldn’t ask teachers to use personal days for Rosh Hashanah or Good Friday.”
Some members of the Muslim community said they felt excluded by the board’s decision to include Diwali and Lunar New year and leave them out. While the Superintendent cited the growth in the Asian population from 22% to 32% in three years as a reason for adding the new holidays, one parent noted that it was “unscientific” as those numbers were not broken down by religion. A petition to recognize the Muslim holiday of Eid-Al-Adha on the calendar has garnered more than 100 signatures in the community.
Parents pointed out that other school boards such as Glen Rock Public Schools and Middlesex County had declared school days off for these holidays and listed them on their calendar and said they were confused about the board’s legal arguments. It appeared that board members themselves disagreed about the legal ramifications of adding a religious holiday at their discretion.
“I am a lawyer I have read the cases,” said board member and program committee chair Berylin Bosselman. “The cases come down all over the place. There is no definitive case law on this issue in state of NJ.” Bosselman believes the law permits the board to add holidays at its discretion and that the district isn’t vulnerable to lawsuits because there isn’t injury. “We just have to pull up our big girl panties and do it,” she said.
Still, other board members were not comfortable taking on the legal risks and said their conversations with legal counsel suggested they proceed with caution. “The law does not allow us to be kind, which is a hard thing to say,” said board member Philip Choong, adding that he wasn’t sure the board could safely grant the holiday without risking litigation. “This is the path to least resistance.”
“We are making a compromise with the legal system,” said board member Jennifer Woodhouse.
Meanwhile, other parents faulted the board for failing to consider all options in drafting the 2018-19 calendar.
The calendar for the year 2018-19 was particularly challenging, as both Diwali and Lunar New Year were on weekdays, leaving little room for inclement weather days when the school would have to shut down.
Several options presented at earlier town meetings including a shorter winter break, a shorter spring break, opening the school in late August or closing the school later in June.
Since the community was divided on where the additional days would come from, the administration took a survey of families across the district to determine how to accommodate additional days for inclement weather. Families were asked to choose between two options - a shorter break in February or three additional days in June. Of those who responded, 57% said they would prefer a shorter break in February.
But parents present at the meeting complained that the survey did not present voters with all the options. Parents of high schoolers were upset over the shortened winter break as they saw it as vital for students taking AP qualifiers after mid-terms.
“I do think that the survey needed more than two options including none of the above,” said Rachel Greenberg.
Other parents took issue with the board for a lack of policy and data in their decision-making process. But the superintendent assured parents that the board had not rushed into any decisions.
“The process has taken many hours of my time over the past six-plus months,” said Dr. Burton “By far, this is not a rushed issue or one that has been taken lightly.”