Five months after the Jewish Alliance first reached out to the Bristol Warren Regional School District about a conflict with the start of school and the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the district has moved the date to Sept. 8.
Monday night, the Bristol Warren School Committee met with the school calendar change on the agenda under “Discussion/Possible Action.”
The July 19 meeting had been precipitated by mounting frustration from citizens within the school district and beyond. On June 18, the school committee had voted 5-4 against discussion of the subject. On June 29, a subcommittee dismissed a formal grievance brought by BWRSD teacher of 27 years, Donna Stouber, over the matter. On July 8, at a news conference held in Bristol, clergy and laypeople alike implored the school committee to reconsider.
Ahead of the July 19 meeting, Superintendent Jonathan T. Brice released a special memorandum regarding the calendar.
“As Superintendent, I am issuing the directive that the Bristol Warren Regional School District’s calendar be adjusted so that the first full day of school for all students and staff is September 8, 2021, and the last day is June 17, 2022,” the statement reads.
“This decision does not resolve the broader issue of why some religious holidays are observed while others are not. It is my hope that next year consideration will be given to making sure that the calendar represents the practical and cultural observances for our community.”
The July 19 school committee meeting, held at Mt. Hope High School, began at 7 p.m. with time set aside for public comment.
Rabbi Barry Dolinger, president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island, reaffirmed the position of the Jewish community on the issue by pointing out that the issue was not about getting time off for the holiday. Jewish holidays have never historically been afforded that flexibility, and that is normal. “But when the first day of school is on Rosh Hashanah, one of the holiest days on the Jewish calendar, it’s that much harder,” he explained.
“Having to miss the first day of school is not the same as having to take a day off for a holiday,” he continued.
Cantor Joel Gluck, spiritual leader of Bristol’s United Brothers Synagogue, pointed out that the new start date, Sept. 8, still technically falls on Rosh Hashanah. “The decision to make the first day of school on the second day [of Rosh Hashanah] only delays the difficult decision for Jewish families and teachers,” he explained.
Donna Stouber, who brought the grievance to the BWRSD subcommittee and spoke at the press conference, specified the importance of pressing the issue, even in light of Brice’s memorandum.
“I am deeply troubled by the fact that the majority of the members on this committee still do not understand the concerns that have been raised about the school calendar,” said Stouber. “I say this because they continue to avoid the issue, which to me means they must not understand it.”
Stouber echoed the requests that the first day of school be moved to avoid the two-day holiday of Rosh Hashanah altogether. Citing professional development days scheduled in October and February, Stouber pointed out that sending children to school on those days would not only alleviate concerns around childcare, but would allow the calendar’s start to accommodate Rosh Hashanah without extending the length of the school year.
“What the community is seeing is a school board that is acting like a bunch of petulant children threatening to hold their breath until they get what they want,” said Stouber.
Andy Shapiro directly addressed Chairperson Marjorie McBride, asking whether the board would accept the superintendent’s decision to move the calendar.
“Mr. Shapiro, I will answer you this way,” McBride responded. “What Dr. Brice did is very legal and we will not contest what Dr. Brice [...] put out today in his memo.”
At 8 p.m., McBride put forward the item of the school calendar before the committee. “We have the memo from the Superintendent today,” she said. “However if anyone here at the table wishes to make a statement, they are more than welcome to do so.”
Committee member Erin Schofield made a motion to amend the Superintendent’s decision so that the first day of school would fall on Sept. 9, avoiding Rosh Hashanah completely. Committee member Carly Reich seconded the motion, and McBride put forth the matter for discussion.
In response, committee member Sheila Ellsworth spoke against the amendment. “I was not aware that if you disagreed with others, you would be called hateful names and not listened to for an explanation,” she said. “That is not democracy, that is bullying.” Ellsworth spoke at length, addressing fellow committee member Carly Reich directly about “hateful words and phrases” utilized in the months since the issue was brought before the committee.
Reich responded with frustration at the long process to make a change to the calendar, noting that it was important to her as a member of the community to advocate for issues such as these.
“You better believe I have spoken to influence – pressure, whatever word you want to use – the school committee,” said Reich.
McBride provided context around the lack of discussion in the previous meeting.
“I admit I made a mistake,” she said. “I told Mrs. Piper that we could have a reconsideration of the vote, not realizing that a reconsideration of the vote under Robert’s Rules of Order did not allow for discussion.”
“I am going to vote no on this amendment,” she concluded. The motion to move the calendar to avoid both days of Rosh Hashanah failed. School will now start on Sept. 8, the second day of the holiday, as mandated by Brice.
In expressing regret at her original vote against amending the calendar, committee member Nikki Piper said: “I know that these weeks have been really hard for us, both emotionally and otherwise, but the one positive [thing] is that I have had many conversations with people in our community and I have learned so much.”
“It feels like a great honor to me,” she added. “Democracy is a messy business and I’d like to say that I’ll never make a mistake again [...] but what I appreciate is that there is a system that allows us to catch our mistakes…”
The Jewish Alliance shared the following statement in response to the Committee vote:
“While we would have liked to see the school committee avoid starting school on Rosh Hashanah altogether – since this still forces some students and teachers to choose between observance and the first day – we believe this is better than keeping the calendar as it was. We look forward to continuing to work with education leaders across our state to ensure learning environments are equitable and free of discrimination for all students, families, and educators.”
EMMA NEWBERY (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes for Jewish Rhode Island and the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island..