School board members give in, then fire back at critics

School committee members say they've had enough of being bullied, pressured and attacked

By Ted Hayes
Posted 7/20/21

Bristol Warren schools will not open on the first full day of Rosh Hashanah this fall, after Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Brice issued a directive Monday afternoon that overrules an earlier school …

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School board members give in, then fire back at critics

School committee members say they've had enough of being bullied, pressured and attacked

Posted

Bristol Warren schools will not open on the first full day of Rosh Hashanah this fall, after Superintendent Dr. Jonathan Brice issued a directive Monday afternoon that overrules an earlier school committee vote to start school in the midst of the Jewish holiday, which this year falls on Sept. 6-8.

At a school committee meeting Monday evening, chairwoman Marge McBride acknowledged that Dr. Brice had the authority to move the starting date back one day, from Tuesday, Sept. 7 to Wednesday, Sept. 8.

"What Dr. Brice did is very legal, and we will not contest what Dr. Brice said today," she said. "We will not dispute nor will we argue."

Dr. Brice's late directive made mostly unnecessary the committee's plan to discuss moving the starting date back one day. And while his action was greeted warmly by several committee members and those who asked to speak publicly, it fell just short of what some had hoped.

As Rosh Hashanah starts on the evening of Monday, Sept. 6 and ends on the evening of Wednesday, Sept. 8, several members of the public asked that the district also close school on Wednesday as well.

"I want to thank the superintendent for the directive he gave today," said Cantor Dr. Joel Gluck of the United Brothers Synagogue in Bristol. "It shows that somebody is listening."

However, he said, "this is a two-day holiday," asking that the starting date be again amended to account for that.

To that end, committee member Nicky Piper motioned to start the school year on Thursday, Sept. 8, but the motion failed 5-4 (it was unclear Monday evening how the vote fell).

In his directive, Dr. Brice wrote that it was his original intention to keep school closed on Sept. 7, but that he was overruled by the school committee. That original recommended starting date, he said, "should have been accepted."

Following his directive, Dr. Brice said he hopes it will restore order.

"I have the ability to open and close schools any day," he said. "While I have to advise the school committee, I do not have to get their permission. At least we can get this resolved."

Angry words all around

To start Monday's meeting, a small number of residents, some of whom were unaware of Dr. Brice's directive, implored the school committee to move the start of school back one day. Several also chastised committee members for "digging in their heels" and refusing to entertain earlier discussions on moving the school start date back.

"I am glad that Dr. Brice had the courage to stand up," Bristol resident Gina MacDonald said. "I'm not Jewish, but I stand with the Jewish people."

To the school committee, she said: "To me this is indicative of a school committee that's out of touch with its community. So I encourage you to listen to your community next time."

"This is not about allowing Jewish students and teachers to have a day off," added Camille Pansa. "It is about respect and inclusion, and community. The school committee needs to stop digging their heels into the ground. It's an easy fix."

And Donna Stouber, a Kickemuit Middle School teacher who this Spring started an online petition drive to support changing the start date, said the whole issue has made the school committee look bad, and for little reason? She said she doesn't know.

"It's non-sensical," she said. "For the life of me I can't understand why this is an issue. I am deeply troubled by the fact that the majority of the members of the school committee" chose not to reconsider the starting date when it became apparent that it was the right thing to do."

"They keep avoiding the issue so I can only conclude that they don't understand the issue. What the public sees is a committee (in which) the majority is acting like a bunch of petulant children who hold their breath until they get what they want."

Some school committee members agreed.

During discussion of the motion to take off an additional day, several said that while they did vote unanimously to overrule Dr. Brice and start a day earlier than he had recommended, they tried to convince their fellow members to reconsider when it became apparent that the move was unpopular and offensive to some community members.

"This has become a distraction, which is why I really hoped we could put it to bed a month ago," said Nicky Piper, whose first motion to ask her fellow board members to reconsider the starting date was rejected by Ms. McBride.

"I wanted to discuss it a month ago and I was shot down," Ms. Piper said. "I did not realize the severity and the repercussions of that conflict, and as soon as I did I brought it back to the chair — I was shot down."

Since that time, she and other members said they have been called names, criticized and attacked personally by the public, online and in the media. It's not fair, she said, and "personal attacks are never OK in my opinion."

"It comes with the job," added Ms. Schofield. "It is awful. (But) if we could boil it down to thinking of this as a human issue and a respect issue, and put our defensiveness aside," the issue would be better served.

"I want this to be a district that is inclusive and welcoming and respectful of everyone in the community. I did not realize that the first day was falling on Rosh Hashanah, and that is why some of us worked to amend that. We did want to change it; I'm not sure why we're digging our heels in the sand."

She said she was happy that Dr. Brice used his authority to overrule the committee, but wondered aloud where that leaves the district.

"What's next? What happens the next time a marginalized group in our community needs to be listened to and really be heard? My hope as a committee (is) that we reflect on that and really consider what does happen next time."

"To me it's always been an easy fix."

Some school committee members were defiant, saying they stand by their decision to change Dr. Brice's planned starting date. They adamantly denied they changed the date out of racism or anti-semitism, but due to the facts: They thought starting on Sept. 7 was a better choice for the district's students and teachers, and something had to give with a host of state scheduling mandates to adhere to, and an unwillingness to let the school term go until nearly the end of June.

“I am not small-minded,” said Warren member Tara Thibaudeau, who first motioned to start after Labor Day and end school by June 17, 2022. “All of the things that people have said about me, I’m kind of insulted. I felt like I had done my homework.”

Ms. Thibaudeau said she stands by her decision, and feels supported in that by her experiences in speaking with the public. As a school committee member and the director of the Warren Recreation Department, she said, she talks to a lot of parents. During discussions on the school start date, "I have not had one person come up to me" and request Rosh Hashanah off.

Member Sheila Ellsworth, too, said she has been left angry by the insults and threats she said she has received in the past weeks.

"Who are we as a community ... that such behavior is ever acceptable or justified?"

"To be called hateful names ...  to have school committee members, call you and pressure you to change your vote, to have community leaders pressure you, to have rabbis pressure you ... that is not Democracy, that is bullying. I'm not a racist."

"My vote was not made in error. It was not a mistake. The decision I made was not based on religious bias (but) based on feedback by parents, employees and community members who are impacted. Just like every single vote I take ... I base all my decisions on fact, not emotion."

"We are a public school system. We cannot take off every ... holiday. We need to be inclusive and equitable to everyone in our school buildings. If we move the date to Sept. 8 or 10, we are saying that one religious holiday holds more value than another."

Ms. Ellsworth criticized fellow member Carly Reich for "pressuring" her to change her vote. When it was her turn to speak, Ms. Reich agreed, but said that is her job:

"You better believe" I tried to pressure you, she responded several minutes later.

"Because I feel in my heart that it is the right thing to do. Being able to practice your religion is a civil right. This is an equity and a respect issue. I'm offended that we are not just able to move some dates."

The superintendent's statement reads:

Schools are places where all children and staff must feel supported and included.  The discussion about the opening of the 2021-2022 school year and whether or not school should be closed for Rosh Hashanah highlights the importance of cultural diversity.  We must ensure that our school calendar meets the RIDE requirements but also supports the varied religious and culturally significant dates that our community recognizes.  These significant dates should be reviewed each year for their relevance and practical considerations.  It is important that for this year Rosh Hashanah be observed just as Good Friday is observed. My original calendar had the first day of school beginning on September 8th, 2021, and this recommendation should have been accepted.

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. 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.

 

 

 

 

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.