Farmington School Board Reverses Decision On Jewish Holidays
Board also agrees to reconsider adding Diwali as school holiday in future
By Paul Palmer
FARMINGTON – Faced with a growing chorus of opposition from the public, the Farmington School Board on Monday Dec. 5 reversed course and reinstated the Jewish Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to the school calendar for the 2023-2024 school year.
Last month the Board decided to remove them as recognized religious holidays. Yom Kippur in 2023 is Sunday, Sept. 24 and Monday, Sept. 25. Rosh Hashana begins the evening of Friday, Sept. 15 and ends the evening of Sunday, Sept. 17.
The board on Dec. 5 also agreed to revisit the issue of adding the Hindu holiday of Diwali to the same calendar after voting no at the previous meeting. Diwali in 2023 will be on Sunday, Nov. 12.
The November actions resulted in a flood of negative press for Farmington and the School District both locally and nationally. A Change.Org petition, “Standing in Support of Religious Diversity in Farmington Schools had nearly 1,500 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.
With approximately 200 people packed into the Irving A Roberts Middle School, the board sought to ease emotions by announcing before any public comment could be made, that they were going to vote to rescind their earlier votes on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, and then vote again to reinstate them to the calendar.
Board members – some who said they were the victims of false attacks – were also quick to defend their earlier vote, while acknowledging that they needed to take a second look. They were each given a chance to speak before any member of the public and before the vote.
“This board has been subject to attempts to disparage our reputations,” said Board member Christine Arnold “ I never thought that would happen.”
Patricia Boye-Williams also a Board member sought to convey to those gathered that there was no disrespect or discrimination on the part of the Board in its first vote.
“Closing schools is not required to show tolerance and respect,” she said.
Beth Kintner stuck a more conciliatory note saying the Board needed to have the trust of the community to do its job.
“Regardless of our intent, feelings were hurt and we must be part of moving forward,” she said.
There were shouts from some of those gathered reacting to the comments of Board members, including one woman who shouted, “apologize” to a rousing round of applause.
Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzsimmons told those in the audience that there were rules for the meeting and if she felt the need she would gavel the proceedings and have the room cleared before resuming. When it was her time to comment, Fitzsimmons said, “There is sorrow that our actions have caused portions of our community to feel hurt. For that I am sorry.”
When it was time for the public to have their say, more than 50 people took advantage, speaking, collectively, for 2 hours. They were young and old, male, female, and identified themselves as Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and citizens of the world. One student who said she was in 6th grade asked the Board, “25% of my class celebrates Diwali, is that not enough? There are posters on equity and inclusion in schools, Why? Does my voice matter?” Another student, Ruupula, said she was speaking for a classmate who was ill but wanted to be heard. “I felt unrepresented by the last decision,” she said. “ I felt betrayed by my own community.”
In making its original decision, the board said it was working under several restrictive elements. The state demands 180 days of instruction and forces districts to take some holidays and observances off. The district does not have air conditioning in all of its schools and Board members were concerned about pushing the year deeper into June by adding additional days. When it came to the non-mandated days, the board used a criteria chart that looked at things like operational impact on the district and if the approval of the school day off would create a situation where other groups might ask for a school day off, thus extending the school year even further into June?
Many at Monday’s meeting criticized the board for using a chart and giving it more weight than what the people of Farmington were telling them.
“All these codes laid out,” said Sohum, a Farmington student, “ is just a loophole to silence us. It sends a message that our holidays are not worthy of being celebrated like Christian holidays.” Suraj Kurtakoti said he and others have been working with the Farmington District for the last 18 months to get them to recognize Diwali.
“The Board of Education should lead by example with moral and ethical standards. How does this set an example for students going out into society?” he asked.
Despite the pre-emptive move to reinstate the two Jewish Holidays next year, many of the speakers voiced their criticism of the original decision and how it was handled.
“It saddens me it had to get to this point,” said Lisa Goldstein of the uproar over the removal of the holidays. “You gave back what was already there.” Farmington schools have recognized Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana as days off since the 1990s. “When you decided to delete our most sacred holidays, I said I will not be silent,” said Lisa Fishman of Farmington. And she had a message for the Board when it came to recognizing Diwali and other religious observances, stating, “You will find we don’t want out neighbors forgotten.”
Many others spoke of their family histories of having relatives surviving the Holocaust or having to flee their native countries to come to America and start over.
“I can’t help but think that you didn’t think the Jewish population would step forward,” said resident Christina Smith. Others told board members that they need to be more aware of the importance of observances and holidays important to the whole community.
The current policy in Farmington says that a student can take an excused absence to celebrate a religious or cultural observance that is not recognized on the schools calendar as a day off. But several students told the board all that did is force them to choose between their religion and their education and often just meant they had to work even harder to catch up on any lessons or exams that they may have missed.
Several school districts in the Farmington Valley already recognize Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashana on their calendars and some like Avon and Newington also recognize Diwali.
In what some saw as an ironic part of the meeting, students from the Robbins Middle School gave a presentation at the start of the meeting that looked at being disciplined thinkers and getting what they said is a full perspective and various viewpoints to help solve issues they face in the classroom. They said one of the skills they use is using feedback to help revise any solutions they were considering. The meeting came full circle when Fitzsimmons told those gathered that the Board of Education values their input.
“I am proud of this community for coming out and being engaged,” she said.