Brunswick board supports adding religious holidays to school calendar

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BRUNSWICK — A proposed school calendar noting all major religious holidays received nearly unanimous support from the School Board and members of the public Wednesday night.

Superintendent Paul Perzanoski created the draft in response to a request in January from a group of residents to add major Jewish holidays to the calendar.

The request drew criticism from some board members, with member Brenda Clough saying she believed that adding the holidays would demonstrate improper deference to an “outside group.”

Clough on Wednesday continued to suggest an immediate change is unwarranted.

The current school-year calendar already includes Christmas Eve, Christmas, and Good Friday.

After the Jan. 13 meeting, School Board Chairman Billy Thompson asked Perzanoski to pull together a calendar listing “every major religion’s holy days.”

Perzanoski presented that calendar at the Feb. 10 meeting, saying he had consulted 15-20 other school district calendars to see how they listed religious holidays, and ultimately decided that the Boston Public Schools’ calendar “best fit our needs.”

The Boston calendar notes the Christian holidays Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter; Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Passover; Muslim holidays Eid al-Adha and Ramadan; the Hindu holiday Diwali, and Kwanzaa.

At Wednesday’s meeting, several board members reported hearing a massive show of public support for the inclusive calendar from constituents and people outside of Brunswick.

Board member Teresa Gillis said she received “multiple emails” all supporting “the multi-faith calendar.”

Board member Sarah Singer said she had received 16 letters of support for adding the holidays, including two from town councilors. One letter, she said, was signed by nine rabbis.

During public comment, Douglas Street resident Natasha Goldman, who delivered the original request to the school board, said that she “fully support(ed) the new draft calendar.”

“Brunswick schools (should) respect and appreciate all students of all faiths,” she said.

Stanwood Street resident Michelle Small, a former School Board member, said the comments made in January by some board members “caught me off guard.”

“I think an ‘I’m sorry’ is due,” she added.

Clough, to whom the comment was directed, did not apologize.

Instead, she said she has been doing online research into how public and private schools and colleges in Maine, and around the country, list religious holidays on their calendars.

According to Clough, many of the calendars she saw, including in major cities like New York, were “silent” on the issue.

“I think we still have more work to do on this … we have an obligation to provide some policy guidance,” she said.

Singer pushed back.

“I’m sorry to contradict you,” she said. “(But) New York City public schools are closed on (religious holidays),” including Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Eid al-Adha.

She said that in light of that information, she believed the Brunswick Jewish community’s request to merely list holidays on the calendar “seems all the more modest.”

Other board members supported Singer.

Rich Ellis said that if given the chance to vote on the calendar immediately, he would vote in favor of it, “to put this issue to rest.”

“I don’t think we need to keep digging at this sore,” he said.

Board member Corinne Perreault agreed. The request, she said “is to (feel) more included.”

“I just don’t see how that could be a negative thing,” she added. “I think we need to have more tolerance and acceptance. … I’m floored right now.”

The draft calendar is posted on the board website, and public comment will be accepted until March 4, according to Perzanoski. The board will likely vote on a final version of the calendar at its March 9 meeting.

After Wednesday’s meeting, Goldman said she was pleased with the draft calendar.

“It looked like more people on the board were in favor,” she said.

Goldman said that in the end, she found the experience, despite the negative comments, to be a positive one.

She said that after the board meeting in January, she heard support from people she had never met, Jewish and non-Jewish.

“People really came out of the woodwork on this issue,” she said. “I feel more like I belong here than I have in the past five years.”

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick School Department headquarters at 46 Federal Street.

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Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.