2013-14 BOE Calendar Draws Criticism

“I’m holding in my hands a Humanitarian Award from the American Conference on Diversity,” Tiffany Bain, Roselle Park High School (RPHS) teacher began, raising the plaque with her left hand as she spoke, “Roselle Park High School received this award in December of 2011 for outstanding and groundbreaking programs that promote social justice and create a safer and more welcoming climate in our community regardless of race, ethnic background, sexual orientation, or religion.”

She continued by asking the questions, “Does Roselle Park deserve such an award? What message does it send if, after being applauded for embracing diversity, our Jewish teachers are denied a request for a meeting to discuss the school calendar? We were denied a meeting.”

Ms. Bain was referring to a request to meet with the entire Roselle Park Board Of Education (BOE) privately to share and educate the Board, which currently does not have any Jewish members, about the issues that Jewish school staff members face when it comes to Jewish holidays and to express concerns regarding the decision by the BOE to unilaterally remove those holy days from the school calendar as days when the school district would be closed in observance.

Ms. Bain also commented that for the upcoming 2013-14 school year, no calendar committee was appointed by the BOE to provide discussion, input, or feedback as had been the custom for many years. The Social Studies teacher went on to provide information on the Jewish High Holy Days or High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement).

In referring partly to Leviticus 23:24-32, Ms. Bain commented, “The Bible instructs Jewish people to spend those day in synagogue reflecting on how to be better people, right wrongs, and make the world a better place. . . No work is to be permitted. One must spend the day in the synagogue.”

In addition to the personal, immediate burdens for Jewish staff members to observe the Jewish High Holidays – which includes fasting – there is the consideration of catching up with work when returning to school as well as increasing the burden to the district of arranging for staff members to cover classes.

“I grew up in Roselle Park,” continued Ms. Bain, “I attended Robert Gordon, the middle school, and graduated from the high school where I have now been teaching for 15 years. I think it’s fair to say that I have devoted my life to Roselle Park. This is despite one sad truth; I have experienced antisemitism while I was growing up here. However, I knew then as I know now, the few people who treated me with prejudice do not represent who we, the people of Roselle Park, really are. Roselle Park is a welcoming, warm, and caring community with a rich diversity of races, ethnic backgrounds, and religions.”

While understanding the complexity of formulating the school calendar, Ms. Bain remarked, “Removing the Jewish holidays from the calendar sends an unwelcoming message that seeks to divide our rich community rather than celebrate its unity. As you make plans for the next school year, we hope you will consider a calendar that represents the inclusive community that Roselle Park really is by closing school on September 5th and 6th, our High Holidays. I invite those who agree with my statements to please stand.”

With that, almost the entire audience stood before the BOE in a show of support.

Andrea Katz Kozodoy, the Clinical Social Worker at RPHS, spoke next and referred to finding that 11 of 15 school calendars she researched in the county supported the Jewish High Holidays but did not state if all those school districts will close on both of those days. Mrs. Kozodoy stated, “There were only two in Union County, that as of right now, do not appear to be supporting the Jewish holidays. So we’re hopeful that this year that will be taken into consideration. Of these districts, many of them have very similar student populations that we have.”

BOE President Chris Miller responded, “First of all, thank you so much for your comments, your heartfelt cause. We appreciate that . . . In closed session, it has to meet certain guidelines [such as] attorney client privilege, there are about nine of them, and I was talking to Mr. Spagnoletti and well, what this meeting is about is the calendar and it’s about a valid point and I hear what you’re saying.”

“Actually Mr. Miller, I have to correct you,” interrupted Mr. Spagnoletti, “You asked me what the topic was and I said it was personnel related, for the record.”

Mr. Miller continued by stating that the teachers had requested a private meeting behind closed doors regarding the calendar and he thought the matter should be discussed openly. “To me,” he clarified, “[That] was something that . . . everyone should hear.”

Mr. Spagnoletti responded, “I believe, and you can check with the attorney on this, we’ve never denied anybody the opportunity to speak in closed session. If the matter is not protected under closed session, we must reveal the contents of that afterwards but there’s never been, in 20 years that I’ve been associated with this district, means by which we have denied anyone, especially staff members, to speak and I was embarrassed that I had to tell staff members that they could not appear before the Board of Education.”

A review of N.J.S.A. 10:4-12(b) (link) – within what is commonly known as the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) – appears to confirm that Mr. Miller was correct to not enter into an executive/closed session since the discussion of the school calendar and a request to close school on certain holidays does not meet any of the exceptions. The matter could not be perceived as a personnel matter since any discussions would impact the entire district, not just an employee or group of personnel. To have entered into closed session for such a meeting, however well-intentioned, would have been unlawful.

After the School Superintendent asked if there was anyone else who wished to speak, Mr. Miller stated, “Well, I just want to speak for one moment and I just wanted to say I’m sorry that you felt embarrassed. This is my second day on the job – well, second meeting – as Board President. I ask for patience. I ask for understanding, as we ask for all our children that we teach. I’m still learning the ropes. If you are upset, I understand you being upset and for that I apologize.”

Robert Gordon School Principal Frances Kenny also addressed the Board and wondered aloud if the Friday before Memorial Day weekend was the best day for holding a professional development day for teachers.

Mrs. Pura Kurywczak returned to the microphone to formally ask a question on a topic that she and Clare Bulger had commented on before Ms. Bain addressed the Board. Previously, during the meeting, the Roselle Park RPHS PTSA (Parent-Teacher-Student Association) had criticized the proposed 2013-14 school district calendar. PTSA President Clare Bulger stated that she and other parents – for whom she said she was speaking on behalf of – were voicing their concerns that there was no committee for the school district calendar, as had been done in the past. She discussed having school closed on Friday, September 5, 2013 in observance of Rosh Hashanah as well as on April 21, 2014 – Easter Monday.

“We’ve been having off that week after Easter so it’s a travel day for a lot of people that [sic] celebrate Easter,” Mrs. Bulger stated, “But it’s also the last day of Passover so it might affect a lot of students. They might not be in school that Monday if you don’t give off that Easter Monday.”

In 2014, Passover ends on the evening of Tuesday, April 22nd.

Mrs. Bulger continued, “If those two days are off, the school year can end on Friday which has been the custom for years.”

It was after Mrs. Bulger spoke that Mrs. Pura Kurywczak first commented on Roselle Park High School’s PTSA Project Graduation which traditionally takes place the night of graduation and offers alcohol-free activities away from school property. Graduation has in recent years occurred on a Friday and the proposed 2013-14 school calendar would move the last day of school for the entire district and, therefore, Graduation Day, to Wednesday, June 25, 2014.

“Since we ask 11th grade parents to chaperone, this could be a big problem for us because they will have been up all night long and will have to take a vacation day on Thursday,” Mrs. Kurywczak stated, “We don’t think we will be able to get enough recruits for that night and we jeopardize the event from taking place.”

Mrs. Kurywczak also commented on the absence of the calendar planning committee for the 2013-14 school year. She remarked that the idea of having graduation mid-week had been discussed last year and that the PTSA voted against supporting it. She suggested, “I say if we’re looking to get out of school earlier, we get out the second week in June on a Friday and not make it a Wednesday and possibly eliminate the tradition that we’ve had in this district for many years.”

No mention was made by either Mrs. Bulger nor Mrs. Kurywczak of reaching out to other high schools or the respective PTAs in the county to see how they handle Project Graduation when graduation does not occur on a Friday. Research done by Roselle Park News revealed that for the current 2012-13 school year, only two public (non-charter) high schools will hold their graduations on a Friday: Roselle Park and Linden. The 16 other high schools (88%) have scheduled their commencement ceremonies during the week.

WeekdayHigh School
MondayAbraham Clark High School (Roselle)
Summit High School
TuesdayCranford High School
New Providence High School
Rahway High School
Union County Magnet High School
Westfield High School
WednesdayElizabeth High School
Kenilworth High School
ThursdayArt L. Johnson High School (Clark)
Governor Livingston High School (Berkeley Heights, Mountainside)
Hillside High School
Jonathan Dayton High School (Springfield)
Plainfield High School
Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School
Union High School
FridayLinden High School
Roselle Park High School

Messages left for Mrs. Bulger and Mrs. Kurywczak were not returned.

Returning to the second time Mrs. Kurywczak approached the microphone, she said, “I did not understand why the committee was not put together this year. Was it an oversight or was it on actual, on purpose, we’re not doing the committee this year? I haven’t heard an answer yet so I would like an answer.”

BOE President Miller answered, “When this committee was brought up, back in the fall, it was the general consensus of the Board that the Board would take on the calendar and we did and this is the result.”

Mrs. Kozodoy also returned to the microphone and asked, “Last year there was an understanding that the Board was supportive of having the Jewish holidays off. I was wondering what the reason was that that has changed this year in regards to the calendar?”

That question set off a public debate among the BOE which brought about their confusion of which days were for Yom Kippur and which were for Rosh Hashanah and exactly what days were being asked to close schools. The discussion even prompted BOE member Loren Harms to say, “My daughter-in-law is Jewish so I’m trying to understand.”

Mrs. Kozodoy entered the discussion by explaining – among other things – that Jewish holidays begin the evening before the date specified on most calendars because a Jewish ‘day’ begins and ends at sunset, rather than at midnight. Additionally she mentioned, “We have always made the request to have three days of the holidays off if they are on weekdays. We’ve always been very grateful to the Superintendent and to the calendar committee and the Board of Education for even just giving us the one day because it shows that we are working with each other hand in hand.”

Mr. Harms responded, “I’m not trying not to work [together], I’m just trying to understand.”

Pura Kurywczak stood before the BOE one last time to say, “I don’t think this is the forum to discuss the details of the committee. Would you guys consider having a calendar committee put together as quickly as possible? . . . And have representation from all the folks that we’ve had in the past at the meetings to . . . have this kind of discussion where we have our experts, whether it’s Jewish or Christian or parent or community or staff and have the committee meeting starting with this calendar, which is a good start, and review like we have in the past?”

There was no explicit reference made of including Hinduism or Islam in the discussions, both which have a number of students who practice each faith in the Roselle Park school system.

The BOE President addressed the audience, “All this input. All this emotion. All this energy. I thank you. I thank you for coming and airing it publicly because now we know and now the district knows as well and the families and the parents. What I hear is a need for a committee.”

The discussion of the calendar topic was concluded with the announcement of a meeting that would be arranged with volunteers from the audience in order to discuss the proposed changes for 2013-14 before the next scheduled BOE meeting.

The Board is scheduled to vote on the school calendar at the February 5th meeting which will be held at EFJ-Aldene School at 7 pm.