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BRUNSWICK — A week after a debate over adding Jewish holidays to the school calendar fueled widespread criticism, the School Board chairman has asked the superintendent to create a calendar that includes the holy days of all major religions.
Former Town Councilor Ben Tucker and resident Elizabeth Sokoloff have also declared their candidacies for the School Board in District 2 and District 6, respectively.
District 2 representative Brenda Clough, and Janet Connors, representing District 6, are the board members who last week objected to the inclusion of Jewish and Muslim holidays on the calendar.
The Jan. 13 discussion was prompted by a written request from 16 Brunswick individuals and families to add notices of Jewish holidays to the 2016-2017 School Department calendar. The author, Douglas Street resident Natasha Goldman, wrote that in the past year, a school facilities meeting, class photo day and a field trip were scheduled on the holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah.
She suggested that adding these holidays, as well as Passover, to the calendar would help teachers and administrators schedule around those days in the future.
In response, Clough expressed concern about “outside groups” putting information on the calendar. Connors said she was concerned about closing school for holidays of “Muslim” and “not-mainstream religions.”
Christmas Eve and Christmas, as well as Good Friday, are on the 2015-2016 school calendar.
Clough’s and Connors’ comments were condemned by residents, school administrators, and other members of the School Board.
“The comment made by my School Board district representative, Brenda Clough … was hurtful and reflects poorly on the School Board,” Lesley Levy, who is married to Harriet Beecher Stowe Elementary School Assistant Principal Josh Levy, said in a Jan. 14 email to Clough, members of the board, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski, and Assistant Superintendent Pender Makin.
“I am not an outsider. My husband … is not an outsider. Our three children are not outsiders,” Levy said.
She also urged the board to support the addition of Jewish holidays to the school calendar.
“For those of you who celebrate widely recognized holidays, I admit that I am envious that you are not required to use vacation time, and have no need to go above and beyond to make up for your absence on your most significant religious holidays during the year,” Levy said.
In another email to the board, Larkspur Lane resident Roberta Schwartz said “I was dismayed and saddened to read the response of some of the Brunswick School Board members to (the letter) regarding adding the Jewish holy days … to the school calendar.”
Connors has not responded to inquiries about her comments, and Clough declined to comment immediately after last week’s board meeting. But in an email Monday, she said she did not intend to label the Brunswick Jewish community as an “outside group.”
“When I made my comment during our School Board meeting, I was referring to groups in the community distinguishing them from the groups within our schools,” Clough said.
“I didn’t know how many other community groups, faith-based and non-faith based, the School Board may receive future requests from to post their important dates on the calendar,” she continued. “Experience tells me that responding to the requests of religious groups historically has opened the door to communications from other religious groups.”
“The Brunswick Jewish Community members are a part of what makes Brunswick,” Clough added. “As I stated at our meeting, ‘my mind is still open to this request’ and it still is as I examine all the related information that it entails.”
Her explanation was too late, however, to dissuade Tucker and Sokoloff from announcing they would seek election to the School Board.
Tucker, of District 2, is an attorney and former two-term town councilor. Elizabeth is a former public high school teacher who currently volunteers in the schools.
In a joint press release Monday, they said they had independently decided to run for the board, but chose to jointly announce now because “it is increasingly clear that it’s time for some new voices on the board.”
“Brunswick is becoming more diverse and culturally rich all the time, and this should be embraced and celebrated,” Tucker and Sokoloff said. “The events at the last school board meeting have reaffirmed our commitments to run. It is time for a change, and we want to let the residents of Districts 2 and 6 know that there will be alternatives to their current representation.”
In a phone interview, meanwhile, Molly Curren Rowles, assistant director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine in Portland, called the comments by Clough and Connors “really concerning.”
She said her organization supports “(focusing) on the opportunities to build communities that are inclusive and that are not involved in thinking about people in those terms that we know can be so divisive and so dangerous.”
The School Board will vote on the final version of the calendar at its Feb. 10 meeting.
In a written statement Jan. 15, Chairman William Thompson said he has asked Perzanoski to “pull together a calendar that is inclusive of every major religion’s holy days.”
“Unfortunately, at our recent board meeting, comments made by some board members over the school calendar offended members of the community. This is regrettable,” Thompson said.
He said that before the Feb. 10 vote, a draft of the calendar would be circulated to board members, and community members are encouraged to send in any important dates or holy days they feel should be included.
“The Brunswick School Board in no way thinks of Jewish community members (or any other religious or non-religious group) as outsiders. Any one of us, at any given moment, can be inartful or inarticulate in the points we are trying to make,” Thompson added.
Perzanoski said Tuesday that he is working on the draft calendar that will include all major religious holidays. He said he is considering how other school departments around the country list religious holidays, and adding community input.
The public can submit information for the 2016-2017 calendar to the School Department until Feb. 1. Perzanoski said he expects to present a draft of the calendar at the Feb. 10 board meeting, when the board will vote.
The Brunswick School Department calendar includes Good Friday, as well as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, but not Jewish holidays.