Debate rages on holidays in CCHS calendar, tabled until April

by Karina Coombs

Debate surrounding three school-day closures for religious observation added to the 2017-18 academic calendar continued to dominate discussion at the March 24 joint meeting of the Concord School Committee and Concord-Carlisle Regional School Committee (RSC). A member of the 2015 Calendar Advisory Committee found herself accused of anti-Semitism, and whispers spread in the community of legal action against the boards.

Original vote eliminated three holidays 

Following the recommendations of the 2015 Calendar Advisory Committee, both the Concord School Committee and RSC had previously voted to keep schools open for the holidays of Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Good Friday in the 2016-17 calendar. But as discussion began for the 2017-18 calendar, calls to reinstate the holidays grew. Committee members received dozens of letters and sat through lengthy and sometimes emotional public comments during public meetings that have spanned nearly four months.  

Next vote reinstated the holidays

At the January 24 joint meeting in which both committees voted to reinstate the holidays, the Calendar Advisory Committee had reaffirmed its recommendation that the holidays should remain off the calendar, noting legal considerations and a religiously diverse community. Ultimately, the committees disagreed, noting the level of teacher and student absences on those holidays and the desire to support members of the Jewish community. As part of their decision, the committees had also agreed to look into forming an advisory committee to revisit the calendar and address concerns that arose during the process (See “After debate, religious holidays added back to CCHS calendar” February 1).

Legal considerations power third look at holidays

RSC Chairman Bill Fink began the evening’s discussion by acknowledging that he had not been aware of the legal considerations before his January vote. Fink added that after speaking with RSC counsel Peter Ebb, he became aware that he had received “…biased advice from both sides” regarding the legalities of the issue.  An email from Ebb, acknowledging that he had been approached by Fink and Concord School Committee Chair Wally Johnston for legal advice following the vote, was introduced and outlined a three-prong test used to consider the constitutionality of closing school for a religious holiday. 

Three-prong legal test for closure

Ebb explained that there needed to be evidence of a purely secular reason for the closure, that a religion should not be advanced or inhibited by the closure, and that it should not create a burden between church and state. If courts discovered a secular closure that appeared to be contrived – what Ebb referred to as a “sham purpose” – it would “not legitimize the closing under the First Amendment.” 

Said Fink of the decision to add the three holidays to the calendar, “It’s clear it has to be for secular reasons. You’re not allowed to make an exception on the school calendar for any religion…” 

CTA and CCTA letters supported keeping schools open

Before opening the floor to public comments, Fink also acknowledged failing to distribute letters from both the Concord Teachers Association (CTA) and the Concord-Carlisle Teachers Association (CCTA) before the January 24 vote, explaining that he had been concerned about violating Open Meeting Law by forwarding the email to his colleagues and had difficulty opening the attachment. Both letters supported the Calendar Advisory Committee’s position. 

“Choosing to recognize certain religious holidays and not others sends a confusing message to our students,” wrote CCTA President Peter Atlas in a letter dated January 23. “Students could interpret that the district values members of certain religions over others, including those who do not practice a religious faith. Students who are not Jewish or Christian may end up feeling less welcome and less respected by their peers, teachers, and administrators.” 

The CTA went further in its letter of support, with CTA President Merrie Najimy and CTA Vice President Karin Baker proposing the formation of a “joint labor, management, and community task force that would examine the laws regarding religious accommodations and develop an equitable policy around accommodations.”

Calendar Advisory Committee member cites anger of responses  

“I am in no way anti-Semitic,” began Calendar Advisory Committee Co-Chairman Kristin Johnson, who was the first to speak and visibly emotional. Johnson explained that this was her first time publicly addressing the January decision and that she had been disturbed by the “escalation and tone” of letters she had received. Johnson also explained that when she learned that members of the community had approached the ACLU about filing suit against the school committees because of their decision, she had reached out to the Chairs to let them know. Johnson used the Carlisle Public School as an example of a local district that did not include the three holidays and asked the committee to make a “proper decision” by keeping the calendar religiously neutral.

Citizens speak for holidays

Following Johnson, a number of community members spoke in favor of keeping the calendar as is and challenged the validity of those data used by the Calendar Advisory Committee to make its recommendation, referring to it as “subjective,” having “a lack of clarity” and part of a “flawed process.” A number of speakers referenced the threat of legal action and asked why those community members had not revealed themselves. 

“Who are these people who are so eager to sue?” said one, adding that she believed there was ample documentation of bias on the Calendar Advisory Committee. Speakers also implored committee members to not be bullied into changing their votes by the threat of legal action. 

“No one is bullying us into anything,” said Fink, adding that the committees had not been approached directly about such a lawsuit. “Anything we’ve heard is anecdotal and second hand.” 

As the committees discussed the matter amongst themselves, Fink explained that Ebb had seen a recording of the January meeting and noted considerable discussion of the impact on the Jewish community of not observing the holidays. While statistics involving absenteeism did come up, the lawyer was concerned that the rationale to close the schools appeared to be more religious-based than secular. Fink also acknowledged this reflected in his own vote, which originally had been against closing the schools and was changed to break an RSC tie as well as acknowledge the majority opinion in the room. 

“I do think it’s an important thing that we get right,” he said, adding that Ebb recommended another vote.

RSC decides on another vote

Concord School Committee’s Wally Johnston said that he was comfortable with his original vote and the factors he based it on, but encouraged board members to look at Ebb’s email carefully and follow up with him directly for clarification. A motion to take a second calendar vote at the April 11 meeting passed. The public meeting will begin at 6:30 p.m. in the Ripley Building and legal counsel will be invited to attend. 

An agenda (with attachments) can be found online closer to the event at: http://www.concordps.org/school-committee/school-committee-meetings.